Wednesday, December 30, 2009

THE SEASONS COME, THE SEASONS GO: 2009 best-of. I'm posting it now because I've accepted that I probably won't finish Under Western Eyes in 2009. Previous years' compilations can be found on the sidebar....

I did a lot of re-reading this year, and read a lot of fiction I don't need to revisit. I also separated out plays for the first time. Those facts combine to make the book lists a bit thinner than usual. So I've starred the books and plays-I-read which I would recommend without qualification to anyone who reads this blog. The unstarred things are often amazing, but not as universally-recommended.

Best books read for the first time (nonfiction): * Alan Bray, The Friend. Hands-down winner. One of the most beautiful and mind-expanding books I've ever read.
Speaking of the Eucharist, I love how thoroughly Bray has placed this sacrament at the heart of his book. Anyone interested in Eucharist as love-feast and as quintessential Christian prayer cannot afford to miss this book, for real.

* Caroline Walker Bynum, Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion.
* Julia Serano, Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity.
* Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez, Perfumes: The Guide.
Andrew Cherlin, The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today.

I... don't want to be a bitch, but if this is service journalism then I should probably note that the Cherlin wouldn't've made it onto a best-of list in any previous year. I did a lot of re-reading and a lot of reading of subpar fiction this year. The Cherlin has a lot to recommend it, as I hope my review makes plain, but it's just not in the same league as the other four. And The Friend is just interstellar distances beyond the others.

Best books read (fiction/whatnot): Huh, this was not a fiction year for me. I did a lot of re-reading, as well.
Christopher Logue, All Day Permanent Red: The First Battle Scenes of Homer's Iliad Rewritten.
Djuna Barnes, Nightwood.
Paul Celan, Last Poems.
James Agee, A Death in the Family.
Randall Jarrell, Pictures from an Institution.

Best movies watched for the first time: "The Trial."
"Barton Fink."
"Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... And Spring."
"Ran." (Yes, by this ranking you can tell how difficult it is for me to separate personal-favorites from best-of.)

almost made it!: "(Untitled)," "The Squid and the Whale," "Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror," "The Descent."

plus honorable mentions for various shorts in the two discs of "Avant-Garde: Experimental Film of the 1920s and 1930s." One; two.

Best blog posts (six, not five, as is traditional):
"Song for a Future Generation": I wrote a lot about friendship and kinship and same-sex love this year. This post might be the best place to start. (more)
"The Most Important Word in the Declaration of Independence Is 'Created'": Or, why there's no point in requiring "secular reasons" for political stances. With bonus aesthetic theory and America-as-argument.
"Falling in Love (Is So Hard on the Knees)": A response to the best criticism I received for my Commonweal piece about Gay Catholic Whatnot.
What I actually meant can perhaps be discerned by noting that I don't only begin the Commonweal piece with my coming-out story. I begin it with two parallel love stories: my crush on a high-school girl, and my Catholic conversion. The implicit narrative of the essay is the story of how love of Christ and His Bride the Church became more central to my life than lesbian love (real love, not just crushes!), and how, therefore, I began to interpret the latter kind of love in light of the former.

Both of these loves are things I really experienced my own self. So my argument probably should not have been cast in terms of experience vs. tradition, but in terms of which experiences lead us to reinterpret prior experiences and transform our response to subsequent experiences.

"Wear Your Insides Out": Beauty is a killer mutant cat that hides inside another cat.
"Politics and the English Language," a two-part thing about gay marriage and the rhetoric of its opponents. The second post is by far the more important one, I think, but the first post provides context and concessions.
It is now my duty to completely drain you: Against sincerism.

Best things I wrote (nonfiction, non-blog): "Romoeroticism." Possibly the most interesting thing I've ever written for money?
This year, just like last year, Gay Pride weekend coincided with the feast of Corpus Christi.

"Defining the Relationship." Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?
We need to keep in mind that it's okay to challenge God -- Abraham did it. It's okay to howl at God in desperation -- Job did it. It's even okay to laugh at God -- Sarah did it. All of them still understood themselves to be bound to God, to hold Him as their Lord, even as they expressed themselves in ways that wouldn't make the parish council happy.

"Church Ladies," First Things review of Catholic and Feminist.
"Shelf Life," my American Conservative column on MLK library. I also liked my piece on Malcolm X Park. Both are subscribers-only.
"Sublimity Now!"
But it would be a mistake to map the Burkean sublime too quickly onto a Christian sublime. In the Christian worldview, sublimity is like cheap lipstick -- or the ashes of Ash Wednesday: It gets all over everything.


Best plays (read or watched): Studio Theatre, Rock'n'Roll. (And a * for the script, which I also read for the first time.)
* Edward Albee, The Goat, Or Who Is Sylvia?: Notes Toward a Definition of Tragedy. I'd seen this before but never read it. It's a harsh, brilliant, scathingly funny play.
"A Midsummer Night's Dream," adapted and performed by the Synetic Theater.
* Elie Wiesel, The Trial of God.
"Dracula," adapted and performed by the Synetic Theater.

My published short fiction: "Better." What if the aliens are just better than us?
"A Story Like Mine": For every scar there's at least one story.

God bless, and see you in the new decade. Remember that New Year's Day is also the feast of Mary, the Mother of God, a holy day of obligation. Drag yourself to church!
And had I known, Blog Watch, she said,
What this night I did see,
I'd ha' ta'en out your twa een
And put in twa of tree...


Camassia writes the only interesting post I've read on the theology of Twilight!

Jesse Walker lists the ten best movies of 1989.

And Jesus, a wealthy young man: "'That's so pathetic, to say that Jesus was struggling alone in the dust and dirt,' Anderson says. 'That just makes no sense whatsoever. He was constantly in a state of wealth.'" Thanks--I think--to the Rattus.
ON THE JUKEBOX AT THE WHOLE FOODS: Cyndi Lauper's "She Bop," followed by Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus"....

Saturday, December 26, 2009

THE WRONG END OF THE TELESCOPE: I've added what I hope is a clarifying paragraph to my bitchy post about reviews of Andrew Sullivan's books. I think the para. is really about whose eye we're supposed to take as our lens.
Oh, Allison Gross, that lives in yon tower
The ugliest witch in the north country
Has trysted me one day up in her bower
And many fair speech she made to me

She stroked my head and she combed my hair
And she set me down softly on her knee
Says, "Gin ye will be my leman so true
Sae many braw things as I would ye gi'"

--"Allison Gross"; Steeleye Span here, and something in another language here. I always sang it as "leman," not "lover," and to the same tune as Boiled in Lead's "As I Was Roving Out."

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

EVERY DAY IS LIKE SUNDAY: So a chain of events led me to read a lot of reviews of Andrew Sullivan's various books. Here are some comments on the reviews. For reference, I think Virtually Normal is his weakest and Love Undetectable is brilliant; LU's third section, about friendship, I think is genuinely life-changing and beautiful, whereas its middle section, about psych theories of homosexuality, is really weak. Apparently this places me at odds with pretty much everyone who got paid to review these books.

So... Margaret O'Brien Steinfels reviews Virtually Normal in Commonweal. On the one hand, it's adorable to see a time when Commonweal could challenge gay-lib without three thousand disclaimers. On the other hand, "homosexual or lesbian" is slightly hilarious.

On the more serious tentacle, I really like how Steinfels draws out the contradiction here: It's really hard to argue for gay marriage if you have the good taste to find homosexuality interesting. One of the more depressing features of the pro-gay-marriage arguments is their tendency to act as if any differences between men and women, or between straight and gay relationships, are banal and beneath notice. This seems like an excellent way to make yourself stupider.

And on a fourth tentacle, I'm fascinated by how little work Steinfels had to do to feel as though she'd successfully refuted Sullivan's arguments. I think her argument is anorexic; and yet at the time, of course, this sort of dismissal was thought "progressive." Sullivan can measure his success by the degree to which Steinfels's arguments on marriage now seem wafer-thin.

[EDITED--that was unclear to the point of appearing self-contradictory. What I mean is that Steinfels's earlier "arguments against" gay marriage are naively dismissive, and really privileged--she isn't even trying to look at the world through Sullivan's eyes, and she isn't even considering that that's something she should do. She is normative and thus gets to judge him, and that's obvious to her. But the later paragraph in which she uses his own words against him, and asks why what he wants should be called marriage at all, strikes me as persuasive and even a possible way to open up new options for gay couples. Without the insistence on banal sameness, maybe we can come up with new models for love--some of which will be Catholic, some of which will be really-not-Catholic, but all of which will be more sublime and honest than the usual love-is-love-is-love oatmeal.]

And, especially: Steinfels's review makes me wonder what aspect of Sullivan's famous "We Are All Sodomites Now" essay isn't "liberationist." He more or less made his name as an anti-liberationist gay man; yet his essay shows all the most striking characteristics of what he described as liberationism, e.g.: a focus on acts vs. identities; a dissolution of boundaries between heteros and homos; the deployment of homosexuality to undermine heterosexual self-understandings; the absolute moral equivalence of intercourse and sodomy.

I mean, Sullivan's essay is wrong on its face, and it only takes one night at a crisis pregnancy center to figure that out; but I'm not super interested in that right now, more interested in whether the "gay conservative" position always collapses into liberationism if you push.

(To which the obvious response is, "Yeah, Sullivan's probably a closet liberationist. But Jonathan Rauch is actually a gay conservative, so you should take up your fight with him." That's fair, but no fun; Sullivan is the Kate Bornstein to Rauch's Julia Serano. The fact that I learn more from Rauch and Serano is probably related to the fact that Sullivan and Bornstein are much more open to the aesthetic and religious dimension of life.)

Norah Vincent reviews Love Undetectable for the National Review. First, I like Vincent, and I'm glad to see this extremist getting her praise from NR! But more substantively, this is not a good review, largely because it isn't even attempting empathy. I mean... AIDS memoirs are not inherently worthless, so I don't get why Vincent thinks she can dismiss Sullivan's book by making the obvious point that it's basically an AIDS memoir.

I also think she's deploying faceless AIDS-stricken Africans against Sullivan--she's weaponizing racism in a way I find really distasteful. Her review has nothing to do with AIDS in Africa except insofar as it's a stick with which to beat Sullivan. I can't respect that.

Gilbert Meilander reviews Love Undetectable for Commonweal. Once again, someone thinks the section about dumb psych theories is the best part! I don't even know what to make of that.

On the other hand, Meilander's critiques of Sullivan's essay on friendship are very well taken.
Moreover, the classical notion of the friend as "another self" may, in fact, cut against Sullivan's claim that one must first love one-self in order to be capable of friendship. We need the friend as "another self" so that we may come to know who we really are. Hence, an attempt first to know or love oneself, to suppose that I must first be a person capable of friendship, may be self-defeating. Something must first be risked in friendship if we are ever really to become "selves" capable of sustaining deep personal bonds.

That's just lovely, and hardcore and challenging. I think Sullivan's essay is an amazing beginning for an investigation of friendship. Meilander's review--like all the works Sullivan actually cites, and recommends--takes it further.
"BLACK AND WHITE": I have a review in the current Weekly Standard, of the Phillips Collection's exceptional show, "Man Ray, African Art, And the Modernist Lens," through 01/10/10. The show is really terrific; and I think actually this review is pretty good, too. Subscribers-only for now.
"I tell you what," said Miss Haldin, after a moment of reflection. "I believe that you hate revolution; you fancy it's not quite honest. You belong to a people which has made a bargain with fate and wouldn't like to be rude to it. But we have made no bargain. It was never offered to us--so much liberty for so much hard cash. You shrink from the idea of revolutionary action for those you think well of as if it were something--how shall I say it--not quite decent."

I bowed my head.

"You are right," I said. "I think quite highly of you."

"Don't suppose I do not know it," she began hurriedly. "Your friendship has been very valuable."

"I have done little else but look on."

She was a little flushed under the eyes.

"There is a way of looking on which is valuable. I have felt less lonely because of it. It's difficult to explain."

"Really? Well, I too have felt less lonely. That's easy to explain, though. But it won't go on much longer. The last thing I want to tell you is this: in a real revolution--not a simple dynastic change or a mere reform of institutions--in a real revolution the best characters do not come to the front. A violent revolution falls into the hands of narrow-minded fanatics and of tyrannical hypocrites at first. Afterwards comes the turn of all the pretentious intellectual failures of the time. Such are the chiefs and the leaders. You will notice that I have left out the mere rogues. The scrupulous and the just, the noble, humane, and devoted natures; the unselfish and the intelligent may begin a movement--but it passes away from them. They are not the leaders of a revolution. They are its victims: the victims of disgust, of disenchantment--often of remorse. Hopes grotesquely betrayed, ideals caricatured--that is the definition of revolutionary success. There have been in every revolution hearts broken by such successes. But enough of that. My meaning is that I don't want you to be a victim."

"If I could believe all you have said I still wouldn't think of myself," protested Miss Haldin.

--Under Western Eyes

Friday, December 18, 2009

CROSS BONE STYLE: Review of Akira Hiramoto, Me and the Devil Blues (poss. volume 1): In this manga Robert Johnson sells his soul to the Devil at the crossroads. The first half of this book explores the terrible consequences for himself and those around him. The second half hooks him up somehow with Clyde of Bonnie-and, and takes Clyde's POV for the most part as we simmer in miserable anticipation of what will happen to Johnson.

The first thing to say is that this book has what Stephen King calls the "gotta": I gotta keep reading. The art is beautiful and makes everyone look real; both Johnson and Clyde remind me of the misheard lyric, "Everybody's crazy 'bout a shot-dead man." I loved the character designs for all of the black characters in the almost-all-black opening half. The more openly horrific scenes are generally done as splash pages, with a furry charcoal style I'm not entirely sure I like but which does definitely convey a sense of broken boundaries, blurred identities, and unknown horrors out in the dark.

The pacing is amazing. There's a long sequence in the second half, which if you described it to me I would consider a boring distraction, in which Johnson is captured for lynching and so the POV switches almost entirely to Clyde as he experiences a tiny Southern town which is like... let's say if Preacher were actually good. (Seriously, I've never understood the appeal of Preacher as much as I did when reading this section. Even the Cormac McCarthy white-whale antagonist is scary! I didn't think I could still find a horror comic where Southern gothic actually worked.)

So anyway, watch the pacing throughout this long, drawn-out horrorshow. Watch how Hiramoto alternates between closeups of a sweating Clyde and background shots of the bar. Watch how a simple "Ah," on page 462, becomes a sign that the blind white man wants to get inside Clyde's head and destroy his will. Watch the unbearable tension as page 465 builds toward page 469. Every "camera angle" and every heart-stopping panel border is meant to build the menace... and it works. This is genuinely one of the most frightening comics I've ever read, even though the "small town evil" trope usually doesn't work for me. This one made it work.

I won't tell you what happens next. I will say that this is the first volume of a series, and I need that series! I will say that there's a supernatural-horror development which I initially thought was a bit silly, but by the end of the second half I thought was frightening and poignant. This is the real thing. This is the deepest blues.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

THANK YOU. Oh my gosh, you guys, you are amazing. It looks like I'll be able to cover all the families on my Christmas-basket list solely because of the generosity of my readers. I will be praying for all of you and I am just so amazed and grateful to see how much you care for these terrific moms and kids you haven't even met!!! Thank you so much... and if you were thinking about emailing me about this, but haven't yet, my families are taken care of now... but consider whether you can buy toys or clothes or diapers for your local pregnancy center or other charity!

What our center usually needs: WIPES. Diapers in sizes 4, 5, 6. We cannot receive stuffed animals or other toys for liability issues except in certain circumstances I don't fully understand, so call first about these things (and work for repeal of CPSIA...). Car seats, strollers. Any clothes which are in good condition--if you wouldn't give it to your sister, why are you giving it to us? The kids here need the respect of unstained, "nice" clothes as much as--honestly, probably more than--they need simple coverings. If you have money and feel awkward about calling and asking what your local center needs, I think wipes and larger diapers will never, ever be turned down. Also, we often offer hand-knit sweaters and blankets for newborns, and I can tell you that the moms reliably think this is the sweetest thing ever, so if you knit consider knitting for a pregnancy center!

We can also always use listings for services: Premarital counseling (esp the kind which is directed to couples considering marriage rather than definitely set on marriage), mental health care, legal services, employment services, rental/utilities assistance, and day care assistance are probably the most common needs my clients have expressed, not exactly in that order. Oh and HOUSING. So if you have recommendations in any of those areas, or even if you just want to make an updated list of resources you found via The Google, I'm betting your local pregnancy center would love you.

No matter what your talents or circumstances there is probably something you can do... and the need is really obviously greater than it was when I started counseling.

Anyway, I'm just so amazed by you guys. I know so many of you are doing other kinds of corporal works of mercy, so I wasn't really expecting a big outpouring... and yet it looks like these families will be having a wonderful Christmas thanks to you. I wish all of you could see these beautiful children grinning and exclaiming when they see their presents.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

WILL THE FETUS BE ABORTED? BY AND BY LORD, BY AND BY: I just got the second installment of Alphonse: "Murder Sleep."

Alphonse is a horror comic about a fetus who survives abortion; he knows, and thinks, and hates. My review of the first issue is here.

The cover of this second installment tells the story. A broken doll sits in horrifying suspense in front of the inevitable revenge: a carving-knife. All my Pet Sematary terror-feelers started tinglin'.

Alphonse continues to complicate the categories of abortion-horror I talked about here. It's baby-horror and grief-horror at once--almost as if both sides had a point!

The art is lumpensympathetic. The grays are used to suggest a world of complicity and fog and nightmare. There are some well-chosen, sharp echo images: The light gleams and breaks against the ice in a glass of scotch the way it breaks against the display window of a cell phone. The overall aesthetic is a wash of gray with sharp black character-defining lines coming out of the quicksand.

The actual storyline is hard for me. This is the second installment, thus we're getting more pieces on the chessboard; and I guess I don't care yet about the new pieces. There are suddenly mafiosi (yes, with heavy irony and a pet white cat, but still) and some kind of conspiracy plot. This seems more... comic-booky, and you know what I mean even if you want to be defensive... than the basic wrongful-birth plot. So far I'm okay with the comedy-horror of the conspiracists, but I wish we had more sympathy for them. The first issue of Alphonse was striking in large part because of its relentless focus on suffering and complicity: No one was exempt from its punishing storyline. This issue, again solely because the conspiracy tropes are hit so hard, seems to exempt its audience from some of its horror. Not all the horror, by any means--the pro-life girl and guy are still really messed-up, and their dialogue is well-balanced and gives a real sense of how people suddenly dropped into an impossible, perhaps miraculous but also horrifying, situation might respond. But this issue seemed to have "villains" in a way which the first one didn't.

It's impossible to talk about this comic without talking about abortion. I think the first installment was less-polarized than this one. Nonetheless I think this comic understands the terror of pregnancy and childbearing. So far, I'm not sure this comic will work--especially if it goes too far in the conspiracy direction, which is what soured me on Human Target, since I honestly think conspiracy stories are the opposite of complicity--you don't do conspiracy stories unless you think no one would ever do bad if they knew they were wrong.

But so far, I'd strongly recommend Alphonse to every horror-comics fan who doesn't immediately reject it based on the subject matter. That isn't a criticism. The politics of abortion are intrinsic to the story. There are at least a hundred reasons you wouldn't want to read a comic in which that was a plot element. So far, though, I--as a pro-life Cat'lick dyke, who has never been in danger of pregnancy in all her ramblin' life--think this comic is presented without sentiment, with sympathy for those who support abortion rights, and with... it's hard to tell because of the particular storyline... but with at least some sympathy for women who abort. I think if you can read Alphonse as a story about abortion it makes sense; I don't know if it makes as much sense if you read it as a story of one woman's abortion. But the narrative hints that we will learn much more about Alphonse's unwilling mother, and if that happens, I think it will go a long way to addressing my uncertainty about this approach.

Highly recommended; despite my qualms, I have to admit that nobody else is doing this, and someone should be. If you read this blog, you may be the sort of person who wants to support Catholic arts! This is a great way to do so!
HE THOUGHT HE WAS THE DUKE OF AMERICA: I hope you all know how much I love the Shakespeare Theater. I've reviewed its productions here and here for money, and here for free. I love it! I have a season pass!

Their current As You Like It is wrong from jump.

The essential problem is the premise: The Forest of Arden = America. This is a one-liner, not a basis for an extended interpretation. There are no real parallels or insights--at least not in this production--except insofar as the Forest represents the American hope/cliche of a new life and identity in the New World. The stagnant nature of the simile also means that AYLI becomes a play to be "solved" rather than experienced.

The basic problem in approach leads to many, many sub-problems, of which I list only a few: a) glitz overtakes intriguing interpretation. There are something like three million costume changes as we move from 1670 (? can't remember exact date, but about a century before independence) to 1933. The production is ridiculously expensive while presenting virtually no intellectual challenges whatsoever. Characters get lost in their costumes and their shifting, bad/intentionally-bad (see below) period accents.

b) creepy racial issues encroach, since the play is supposedly a Depression-era Hollywood confection presenting an idealized, immigrant-with-convert's-fervor vision of American history but there is no framing story. So we get the happy slave, emancipated by the nice white lady, but without any framing story he lacks any semblance of a specific personality or inner life. Nothing complicates or challenges the idyllic Americana, which alludes smugly to past evils without confronting them.

c) I don't think I had any new experience of either America or As You Like It. I already know what the cliches are. I don't need another iteration of them.

The costumes are beautiful. I stopped caring sometime after intermission, but still, they are wonderful.

There are genuinely lovely moments. I'd never noticed quite how Jonathan-and-David the Celia/Rosalind relationship is--how much Celia sacrifices, and how explicitly, for her friend. That was beautiful and poignant... and totally swamped by the weird costume- and period-changes Celia has to undergo later. Rosalind's actress is wonderful, and Floyd King, of course as Touchstone, is of course brilliant. All of the actors were either good or obviously directed-badly. (In fact, the problems with the show can probably be calibrated by the fact that amid the tepid applause at the end, Rosalind's actress barely brought the audience to warmth, and King managed to take the only bow I've ever seen in which he was not showered with applause and even hooting. None of this debacle was their fault!)

I have frequently questioned this theater's interpretive choices (Edward II, The Misanthrope). I have never before thought they were just being intellectually lazy. These actors deserve better. Shoot, I deserved better, and I'm just the audience!
"Only in individualist societies is it so important to control what individuals are and how they behave and think. There it is understood that the society's success or failure, its integration or breakdown, is ultimately determined by the competence and conformity of the individual. As a result much of the effort of modern society goes into constructing appropriate individuals..."
--John W. Meyer, quoted by Bruce Henricksen in "The Construction of the Narrator in The Nigger of the 'Narcissus'"

Yes, this is via the Rattus.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

MOEBIUS BAGEL. Or really just a twist-ending bagel; but if you wish to explore the possibilities of the Moebius bagel you should click the link. Via Postmodern Conservative of course.
ANTIDISSOLUTIONARIANISM: A really fascinating Wired article about a man who attempted to disappear--and/or pull a Brighton Rock--and what happened next.

Via Rattus, who must never disappear.
And the fearful thrashing he had given the inanimate Ziemianitch seemed to him a sign of intimate union, a pathetically severe necessity of brotherly love.
--Joseph Conrad, Under Western Eyes

Thursday, December 10, 2009

CHRISTMAS BASKETS. Hey... I know most of you all are doing Christmas baskets through your church or some other group. But if you're not, I have three families who could really use your help. They're fairly small--one to three kids--but they don't have any way to get Christmas presents right now. If you can help, please email me!!! I will let you know the kids' names, sexes, and ages, and I will also pick up the baskets, so literally all you have to do is come up with presents. I've done this in the past and the moms are so incredibly grateful. Because of the economy we're having a much harder time this year, so really, even if you can only do part of a basket (like, one kid but not the mom or other children) I will find a way to make up a whole basket. I wish you could see the smiles on people's faces when we can give them stuffed animals, gorgeous Christmas dresses or Santa suits, etc.--their faces just glow when they know that their children are loved and valued even by the outside world.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Who sails the ships out of Blogwatch,
Laden with Bibles and rum?

Megan McArdle: You should be reading Megan anyway, because she gets both the problems with the current US health-care system and the problems with the proposed fixes; but I found this post especially interesting for its discussion of what the euro can and can't do.

Sean Collins:
Digression: In writing about film for this blog I've noticed that I don't talk about form the way I do with comics. Like I said, I've lost a lot of that vocabulary, which in turn limits my ability to think that way, and that's really sad. When I first started regularly reviewing comics--probably for The Comics Journal--it took a shot by Milo George at the state of comics criticism to make me realize that I was doing the usual formula: Three or four paragraphs about the writing, one paragraph about the art, a "to be sure" paragraph, and a conclusion. Figuring out that comics are a visual medium ain't rocket science, so to confer upon myself a rocket-science degree if you will, I tried to fix this the easiest way I could: I began forcing myself to start reviews by talking about the visual aspects of the comics.

more--I'll be pushing myself this way as well

The 40 Worst Rob Liefeld Drawings. I wouldn't care really, but now that I really like Deadpool... I mean really, the pouches and the buttocks and the... the hands that don't do what they should and the FEET the FEET the BARBIE FEET I just can't... well yeah, basically Liefeld is genuinely as bad as you've heard. And this takedown is mostly funny!

The Richard Hofstedter Drinking Game.

"The next conservative thinkers." Surprisingly not-awful.
Now you must make the prayer of the poor: "Thank you."
--Black Orpheus, probably misremembered, so if you know the actual line please tell me

Saturday, December 05, 2009

It's time for blogwatch,
It's been a great day, thanks a heap!

Krampus tweets! Via Sean Collins. This is a gift from me to you, because you have been bad.

"The Top 10 Stories You Missed in 2009." You probably missed fewer of these if you read the foreign press, but if you don't, Foreign Policy catches you up.

"Seven Insane True Stories Behind the World's Most WTF Houses."

Friday, December 04, 2009

"KEEPING THE KRAMPUS IN CHRISTMAS": Longtime readers know that I am no fan of Santa-Claus treacle. But if we must have superstition in our Christmas, let's at least have justice to go with our mercy!

(Jesse Walker has more links: "A few years ago an Austrian psychiatrist reportedly called for banning Krampus, on the grounds that ;in a world that is anyway full of aggression, we shouldn't add figures standing for violence...and hell.'" And some readers may appreciate a Christmas version of Lovecraft's "Shadow Over Innsmouth": "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Fishmen.")

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Jacob Wilson, a student at Iowa State, described his experience at Love In Action. When he was 19, his pastor found out he was dating another boy from church, and threatened him that he would no longer be welcome in his church or his hometown unless he went to LIA. The program promised him freedom from the pain of his "deviant choice", but later they told him that the best he could hope for was a life of celibacy and self-control. (As we heard often throughout the weekend, this kind of bait-and-switch is common in ex-gay ministries.) Jacob wasn't allowed to talk to his family and friends till he made a list of every sin he'd ever committed and shared it with them. At the "Friends and Family" weekend, LIA counselors blamed their clients' parents for making them gay. Then, all the clients had to march in silence into the auditorium and one by one share the thing they were most ashamed of, to an audience of 100+ people. Jacob quit Bible college after one semester and has started surrounding himself with more affirming friends who support him in being both gay and Christian.

--Jendi Reiter

Sunday, November 29, 2009

GOING TAME: Jesse Walker vs. Sarah Palin (and in partial defense of her fanclub)...

and John Reynolds here and here. "Ronald Reagan showed more substance in his delightful book written mostly about his time as an actor than Palin shows in her four hundred pages."
"UNSAFE AT ANY CREED": My current AmCon column looks at Brookland/CUA. Subscribers can read it here (PDF).

This issue isn't as good as their stellar books issue--I think the cover article rests on a naive view of an American Golden Age when we had a "humble foreign policy" (TM GW Bush, summer 2000) and the press afflicted the comfortable--but AmCon consistently finds interesting and entertaining writers, and then gets out of their way.
I WONDER IF HE'LL ROT UNDERWATER?: I bought a 2010 calendar with a horror-movie poster for every month; and, in a burst of cheapjack awesome, the calendar comes with four dvds so you can see all twelve movies! I think April's selection is Dementia 13, which also happens to be the directorial debut of one Francis Coppola.

People, this is the good trash. The plot is a Frankenstein skeleton, the writing is obvious, and the acting is workaday, but you know what? The direction is genuinely lovely. The opening sequence is shot in tight, high-contrast black and white, exploiting the lead femme's white-blonde hair; it's got terrific control of the soundtrack as well. The credits are eerie, subaqueous and beautiful. There are many terrific scenes later, such as the pool death--just perfect and horrible, and wringing the most out of the b&w. Scenes are framed well and creepily. There are also some nice character moments, though this isn't a movie you'll remember for complex characterization. It's deeply over-psychologized in that midcentury style: You know the bit at the end of Psycho where they try to explain things? That attitude is threaded through this movie.

Nonetheless, Dementia 13 is really worth checking out, especially if you can strongly privilege looks over substance. Corman + Coppola: How can you not be at least intrigued?
"I LOVE THE '30S": This is amazing. So far the Monopoly episode is my favorite, but the Hindenberg one is also epic, and really, all of them have been hilarious. (If you just let this link run it will play all the videos. They're all about three minutes long.)

Friday, November 27, 2009

SO MANY STEPS TO DEATH: As he does every November, Daniel Mitsui is posting Catholic and Orthodox artwork/liturgical whatnot relating to the Last Things. Yes, there are a lot of Dances of Death; you also get Alaskan spirit houses, Requiem chasubles, ossuaries, death's-head rosaries (!), and the Museum of the Holy Souls in Purgatory.
Too many people say step out on de word. But all dem words don't say preach. Sometimes God writes and just as soon as God git to de letter P--they run off and go preach. God wuz gointer say "plow," but they don't wait tuh see.
--as told to Zora Neale Hurston by Eugene Oliver; Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Folk-Tales from the Gulf States

Monday, November 23, 2009

FACTORIES THAT MAKE FACTORIES: I really loved (Untitled), even though I went in to the theater with a lot of skepticism. Basically, I expected the movie--no wait, I mean "film"--to beat up on experimental art from a fairly basic "my kindergartner could make that" perspective. Instead, I got a complicated, even humanist (not my favorite philosophical stance--I'm a personalist, not a humanist--but still) fable in which both commercial success and boundary-pushing were simultaneously celebrated and interrogated.

So here are three points/questions about the movie.

1) It's so funny! I mean, I'd already seen the line, "Harmony is just a capitalist plot to sell pianos!" in ads for the flick (and using that line in ads is kind of adorably recursive); but there were so many other great lines and moments. I think the sex scene, in which the classic "How does a bra come off?" puzzle was made vastly more complex by the lady's baroque clothing, might have been my favorite.

And I note that many of the satirized characters are also humanized. Not all--the Damien Hirst caricature, for example, doesn't get more than a comeuppance, and ditto the easily-snowed male collector. But this movie is more a debate or dialogue than a treatise: Lots of perspectives get their say, and get to be human.

2) I love how the movie draws out the bluntly literal bent of so much avant-garde art. This isn't art you experience, or even art you endure; it's art you solve. Possibly the most blatant expression of this fact comes early in the movie, when the hot haute collectrix says that the rattling of a bucket on the end of a chain signifies "the unchaining of desire," or some such. I will always stand up for abstraction and stylization as a way of representing a truth behind "realist," Naturalistic human experience; but this movie showcased the ways that abstraction can become childish, an alphabetic relation of image to concept in which the image adds nothing to the concept.

I think that's one reason that the movie manages to show so much terrific avant-garde art, and contrast it with the art being mocked. I mean, I personally didn't care for the shimmery-glasses music of the Avant God at the end--I thought it was pretty and twee. But I did nonetheless get that it was attempting to be music, something nonliteral, something unspeakable, something more lovely and complex than a chain falling into a bucket to represent the unchaining of desire.

3) Freddie's old post about Damien Hirst made me think about one question. I mean, I think Freddie is wrong on at least five different levels!, lol (what is actually wrong with fifty beautiful pictures of water lilies?), but the thing I most want to question right now is the idea that art has been emptied of meaning.
I think the responsibility of the modern artist is to recognize the inability of symbols to signify.

Look. In the modern era, wherever you'd care to place that, there was a crisis of representation. (I should say that this next bit isn't mine alone but rather is boilerplate undergrad art history. It's still true.) Everywhere, traditional structures of certainty and meaning were being subverted. Religion, science, government, civic society were all facing new and frightening challenges. Into this maelstrom came the popularization and eventual universality of the camera and the photograph, a direct and insurmountable challenge to the preeminence of the artistic image as the primary mode of representation. In the face of this challenge, the response of many artists has been to abandon the notion of representation at all. Just as literature in the modern era was the literature of exhaustion, art in the modern era was the art of a tradition that had, in a small but significant way, admitted defeat. Art itself fails, in the modern era.


Because I agree with Freddie that "beauty" isn't the only aim of art. And (Untitled), I think, does as well: It gives the stellar line, "When did beauty become so [redacted] ugly?!" to a pretentious painter of pretty corporate sunbursts. (One of the movie's many triumphs is that my self-confessed Philistine friend said, afterward, "You know--I really liked his paintings!" They're likable! They're pretty and pleasant, and I actually don't mean that with any degree of contempt; I would think well of a hotel or office which had these lovely, balanced abstractions on its walls. Anyway, point is, I get that art can go beyond beauty; I just want it to go beyond beauty into sublimity.

But even that isn't the fight I want to pick right now. The thing I'm curious about is... why some media and not others? Why are painting and "orchestral" or non-pop music so incredibly conflicted and self-doubting, so willing to accept narratives about the death or dearth of meaning... while novelists continue to churn out adultery stories, and movies continue to do more or less everything, and even comics seem to be recovering from a late-'90s period in which they were swallowed up into the maelstrom of their own navel? Seriously... if the Weakerthans are doing something new-enough; if The Wire did something new enough; where does anyone get off saying that painters, sculptors, and non-pop musicians have exhausted the possibilities of meaning?

Maybe "fine artists" are living in the world of The Last Unicorn--where most unicorns have been captured, it's true; but every time they see a real unicorn, they think it's merely a strange white mare.
Most of us have genes that make us as hardy as dandelions: able to take root and survive almost anywhere. A few of us, however, are more like the orchid: fragile and fickle, but capable of blooming spectacularly if given greenhouse care. So holds a provocative new theory of genetics, which asserts that the very genes that give us the most trouble as a species, causing behaviors that are self-destructive and antisocial, also underlie humankind’s phenomenal adaptability and evolutionary success. With a bad environment and poor parenting, orchid children can end up depressed, drug-addicted, or in jail--but with the right environment and good parenting, they can grow up to be society’s most creative, successful, and happy people.

lots more--really interesting. Via Jendi Reiter.
FLOW MORPHIA SLOW...: This is pretty amazing. Click on the YouTube link.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

"HEAVEN CAN WAIT": Me, at Inside Catholic, in which I discuss Hell, American character, slapping your mama, and the centurion who speared the side of Christ:
There's a terrific moment in the TV show House, in which the irascible and brilliant Dr. Greg House is explaining to a lapsed Catholic subordinate why he doesn't believe in the afterlife. House, with all the self-lacerating irony that actor Hugh Laurie can impart to the character, says, "I would hate to think that all of this was just a test."

House is right -- and he's offered a crucial diagnosis of one form of Catholic piety. There's a way of thinking about the afterlife that makes this life, here, irrelevant and even inexplicable. Catholics will sometimes argue against universalism -- the comforting belief that all people must be saved, because God would never be so cruel as to damn somebody's grandma -- by asking, "If everyone is saved, why even bother to do the right thing here on earth?"


Sunday, November 08, 2009

KITCHEN ADVENTURES: LIKE A GOOD PENNY! Today I cooked with turnips for the first time, for a warm salad. I can confidently say that this vegetable will be making many repeat appearances in my kitchen. Turnips are just as creamy and blank-slate as all the best comfort food.

So here's what I did: I heated the oven to 400. I chopped up some cute turnips with a Japanese-sounding name I can't remember, into big chunks. Imagine approximately a smallish button mushroom: That's how big they were. I then placed the turnip chunks on aluminum foil, drizzled seriously with light olive oil, tossed with cumin and a bit of curry powder, wrapped the turnip in foil, and stuck that in the oven. I waited about ten minutes.

(While I was waiting, I made a quick dressing by whisking ex-vir olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and some marinating liquid from a jar of water-packed artichokes, with a bit of salt and pepper.)

I chopped the turnip greens, chopped up a small hot pepper, and put that on to saute with ex-vir olive oil and salt and pepper.

I cut up a ciabatta roll into smallish pieces, and put it in the toaster oven for medium-well.

I chopped up some mozzarella.

At this point the toaster oven chimed. I let the ciabatta cool off. Once the turnip had roasted for about 20 minutes, I shredded the toasted roll, combined all the ingredients, drizzled with the dressing, and gave it another grind of black and white pepper. Then...


This was great. The balance of the salad wasn't exactly right--it could use another bright vegetable, not necessarily an out-of-season tomato but maybe I could get another pepper up in there, and I had a bit too much mozzarella proportional to the other ingredients. But the caramelized creaminess of the turnip, combined with the dark rich cumin, was just perfect. I think I could just eat roast turnip with salt, pepper, and cumin, and feel like I was eating macaroni and cheese.

The greens were also delicious. Raw, they were much sharper but also much tastier than raw spinach, which has always struck me as kind of like eating dogwood leaves; cooked, they grew dark and rich, ready to play off of the hot pepper. Raw turnip greens reminded me a bit of raw sorrel (yum), while cooked turnip greens were more spinach-like, darker, more distinctive than cooked sorrel.

I just liked this so much. Which is good, since I don't have a lot of winter vegetables I really love--even butternut squash, which of course is delicious when someone else cooks it, I've never quite been able to master.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

DOWN, DOWN, DOWN!: Two reviews of The Descent... Final Girl.

The Horror Blog.
YOU WILL GO DOWN IN DARKNESS BEFORE YOU DIE: Wow, I loved The Descent. edited!--I've moved this review to the other blog, the one where I post spoilery stuff.

ARGH edited to add actual link! Sorry!

Thursday, November 05, 2009

HURRY UP DAY JOB: MarriageDebate! This week, IVF mistakes and what we mean when we say a child is "ours"; adoption and parental investment; fathers, and whether family-resource centers tend to assume that they're irrelevant.

Last week, marriage in the movies, a CNN debate about monogamy, a chewy Newsweek piece on the future of abstinence-only sex ed, libertarianism and culture, "your brain without Dad," Stephen Colbert, and much much more.

I know I don't post there regularly enough. But believe me, even if you have signed up (as I hope you have!) for the IMAPP weekly newsletter, you're still missing interesting marriage- and family-related links, if you don't check in at the blog. (The weekly newsletter does give you the more scholarly stuff, so if your time is limited, consider signing up for that. The site itself is a bit more freewheeling, basically whatever I feel like throwing into the hopper plus whatever the IMAPP overlords consider interesting plus occasional flotsam. That can be a real advantage, though, since the blog addresses a wider range of issues and perspectives than the newsletter.)

I am not being paid to tell you this! I just think we've got stuff up there now which would interest many of the readers of this site.

PS: As always, send me links! As you can see from the cornucopia above, the site deals with marriage, family, parenting, and gender issues, and we're willing to publish pretty much anybody's perspective as long as it's well-written and/or intriguing. Our job is to advance the debate.
A GIRL ON A BEACH: On October 30, I watched Nosferatu at the AFI Silver, with a live score by the Silent Orchestra. There are a lot of things one could notice about that experience (SOMEDAY I will own the SO-scored version of Alla Nazimova's Salome!!!!) but I will just pick one.

This movie is very long, for a silent movie, and it does have bland stretches. But it also offers lots and lots of scary ship upon a scary ocean. And it also is only the second movie, after Barton Fink, where I've found an image from my personal horror iconography presented in all its beauty and terror.

The Mina Harker character--I can't remember her nom de ripoff, but you know which one I mean--sits out on the beach and waits for her husband's ship. The waves crest black; the grasses shake in the wind. Crosses are planted here and there around the bench where she sits, memorials to sailors lost.

This one scene twists in my gut. It takes the hope, the memory, the sense that once there was a place where we were at home--all the things I associate with this scene of a beautiful girl on a beach--and studs it with crosses, with death and heartbreak.

I have been here before
But when or how I cannot tell;
I know the grass beyond the door,
The sweet keen smell,
The sighing sound, the lights around the shore.

--Dante Rossetti, "Sudden Light" (more from me)

Somewhere I have heard this before...

--Nirvana, "Drain You"

Just a beach and a pretty girl,
If you just take this potion

--The Levellers, "Fifteen Years"

I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea;
But we loved with a love that was more than love-
I and my Annabel Lee;

--Edgar Poe, "Annabel Lee"
Oh life looked so rosy in the blogwatch,
But I'll be a friend and I'll tell you what's in store...

Belated Halloweenery edition.

Camassia on Synetic Theater's Dracula adaptation. I strongly second her belief that Synetic should've stayed wordless; the best moments of the production were all dance, from the snaky vampire women to the eerie invisible horse. (That horse really should NOT have worked--it should've evoked memories of Monty Python members banging coconuts--and yet the amazing lighting work and the actor's total commitment to the moment made his galloping seem terrifying, not silly.)

Dresden Codak: 42 Essential Third-Act Twists. FOOD STARTS EATING PEOPLE.

Pumpkin Gutter: This may be the most fabulous thing ever. Iron Pumpkin, embryo pumpkin, American Gothic pumpkin, braces pumpkin, scary eye pumpkin, tarantula pumpkin... there's something here for everyone (in the Addams Family). Sadly, I forget where I found this.

Sean Collins: Reviewing Al Columbia's Pim and Francie:
But moreover, these scary stories and disturbing images are all so gorgeously awful that they appear to have corrupted the book itself. They look like they've emerged from the ether, seared or stained themselves partly onto the pages, then burned out, or been extinguished when the nominal author shut his sketchbook and hurled it across the room or tore up the pages in terror.


Plus, he reviews Paranormal Activity. While he ended up with a different overall stance on the movie than I did, I really liked a lot of his review, e.g.:
...For some reason, the lights being flipped on and off really got me. They weren't flickering--something was walking around turning lights on and off. Not only was something else present in the house, it was basically using the house the way we would--only it was nothing like us in nature or intent. I dunno, that creeped me out pretty bad.

But best/worst of all were the two scenes where somnambulist Katie got out of bed, turned to face it, and just...stood there, for hours and hours. That's pure automaton Freudian uncanny, of course, and a monumental horror-image par excellence. ...These are actions that really have no inherent emotional or psychological content whatsoever. They're purely neutral. But when you have no idea why someone's doing them, even totally neutral actions can become sinister, almost intolerable.

(whole thing--plus comments-boxing!)

Basically, the buzz around PA has made me really want to rewatch The Blair Witch Project--especially since I am in the minority who really liked the Heather character!--so that's probably good.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

THE CHILDREN OF THE NIGHT: If you don't check out the Kindertrauma Jukebox... well, I reckon we don't like your kind 'round here.

The Specials provide my favorite tune by far.
The function of the advance guard in military terms is exactly that of the rear guard, to protect the main body, which translates as the status quo.
--Donald Barthelme, quoted in the American Conservative, of which more later

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

THREE LINKS. First, in honor of the 75th anniversary of the Yale Political Union, the only article you'll ever need about the ypu.

But also: Noli Irritare Leones turned me on to these two interesting posts: a friendship contract; and the "moral murkiness" of charity. The latter link has a terrific story of a fistfight, and reminds me of my post about pregnancy center counseling, leadership, and complicity.
OUT AND ABOUT, LIKE A RORSCHACH BAT*: Here's where I'll be in the next few days. If your own itinerary looks similar, why not say hello?

Thursday: All-day conference at Heritage on "Religious Practice and the Family: What the Research Says." This is totally free, they feed you, and I should be able to get an article out of it... and, uh, it's also a fascinating subject!

Then, at night, I shall venture into darkest Rosslyn (it's actually about four blocks from the metro, but I am scared of suburbs) to see Synetic Theater's wordless adaptation of Dracula. I saw their Midsummer Night's Dream earlier this month, and it was amazing--funny, sexy, eerie, poignant, all conveyed solely through music and movement. I'd been hearing about this troupe, mostly made up of Georgian immigrants, for years; I can tell you it lives up to the hype. More once I've seen Dracula.

Friday: "Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror," at the American Film Institute Silver theater in Silver Spring. Again, a short (though uphill) walk from the metro. Scary movie with live music. I'll be at the 9.30 screening.

Saturday: Halloween!

Sunday: "Night Editor," AFI, 12.45 pm--tickets only $5! Noir, and I'm hoping the title indicates that there will be at least a bit of newspaper-noir, a subgenre I can never resist.

(Also, this is All Saints' Day, of course, so I will be churchifying.)

*Possibly the second-most obscure blog heading I've ever used. That Hattifatteners quote might still be the most obscure.

Monday, October 26, 2009

"SHELF LIFE." My new AmCon column--which is only available to subscribers online, so check your local libraries and newsstands!--takes a look at Martin Luther King, Jr. Public Library. I think this is my favorite DC column so far.
THE PURPOSE PRIZE. Hey, that's my aunt! (Second item.)
"Conservatism is my sexual preference."
--the FC, around 5 a.m. Sunday morning

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The last bus I missed to Maudlin Street,
so you drove me home in the van
saying, "Women only watch me
for my blogs..."

Sean Collins says more or less what I thought about Danica Novgorodoff's Slow Storm comic... except that he was easier on white-$#@!up Ursa than I was. But yeah, the art is amazing.

Maggie Gallagher on Ricky Gervais vs. Oscar Wilde (yeah, you have to fight through some partisanage, but it's worth it--scroll until you hit the Wildery if you have to).

Mark Shea on converts vs. cradle Catholics--yeah, I think this is a good assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of all us messed-up popish folk.
HOT LINKS FOR HORROR CHICKS. I revisit Night of the Living Dead. (Also contains comments on Paranormal Activity, so you might want to avoid this post if you're avoiding fairly general yea-or-nay commentary on that flick.)

Lotsa horror-bloggers list the tropes which always freak them out! Fascinating. I will say a) my thoughts about Zelda in the movie of Pet Sematary can be discerned from my thoughts about the mother in the Willard remake (which I otherwise loved--and, in fact, I definitely would not make this same criticism of the novel of Pet Sematary),

and b) I can only think of two tropes which get to me as horror in a way that they affect me in no other genre. #1: the sea. Discussed here and here and here. The black and churning ocean.

#2: traumatized blondes. From The Birds to Vertigo and way beyond... horror is literally the only genre in which blondes really do it for me. I mean, I wouldn't kick Veronica Lake out of my... uh, church pew... but for the most part it's only in horror that blondes make sense to me.

The More You Know!
...D'Addario was a rare breed of supervisor for a paramilitary organization. He had learned long ago to suppress the first impulse of command that calls for a supervisor to intimidate his men, charting their every movement and riding them through investigations. In the districts, that sort of behavior usually resulted from a new supervisor's primitive conclusion that the best way to avoid being perceived as weak was to behave like a petty tyrant.
--David Simon, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets

This petty-tyranny is what leadership isn't. Leadership is getting men to love what you love. ("Talent hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see.") Leadership is about creating future leaders, who can see what you couldn't see. Command is always, at its best, a form of submission: submission to the target, to the unseen, to the mission, to the barely-apprehended beloved.

[edited to clarify what I meant by "this"!]

Friday, October 16, 2009

LESBIAN CHRISTIAN WHATNOT. Disputed Mutability is back!!! "Celibacy I could accept. Assimilation never!"

and Miss Ogilvy seeks novel recommendations.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: A TERRIFIC DATE MOVIE! Unless you're heterosexual or something.

No, an actual review is here. Probably too long, probably chewing a bit too hard, but there you have it....

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The fundamental anthropological truth of the Gospel is not that we are sinners, but that we are loved. Repentance is not grasping that I am a sinner, any fool with a modicum of self-knowledge and awareness knows that about himself. No, repentance is knowing in a deep and personal way that I am loved.

(the rest)

Saturday, October 10, 2009

PURGATORY IS A ROMAN A CLEF, AT BEST: Elie Wiesel's play The Trial of God is amazing, and if you're reading this blog, you probably should read it. It's based on a real thing that happened: Wiesel, fifteen years old, was taken under the wing of some fellow Auschwitz prisoners who were rabbis and Talmud scholars. One night they put God on trial, as Job did. God did not deign to appear in the dock as He did with Job. They brought in a verdict of guilty. Then they made their nightly prayers.

The Trial of God changes both the setting and the outcome. We're in a 17th-c. village which has recently been scourged by a pogrom. This early-modern setting gives a sense of the ways that Jew-hate has existed across millennia. The pretext for the trial is that this night is Purim--the night celebrating the Hebrews' miraculous victory, recorded in the Book of Esther, against the genocidal villain Haman. A traditional formula states that on this night, Jews must get so drunk that they can't tell Haman from (the Jewish father and hero) Mordechai. This is carnival for Jews, carnival with a knifepoint as sharp as it should be (yet almost never is) for Christians.

The idea of recasting the Book of Job as a Purimspiel is astonishing. Everything in this play rang true to me. Initially I did wonder about some things said by the local Orthodox Christian priest, in which he explicitly praised Haman and said he was a true Christian--that seemed like making one's opponents unnecessarily stupid. But actually I think it illustrates how insane Jew-hate makes the haters. A Christian who hates Jews must be open to shockingly absurd reworkings of the Gospels, and Paul's letters.

I'd recommend that you avoid any edition of this play which includes interpretive essays by Christian theologians. My copy has two, a foreword and an afterword, and both seem rather disgustingly invested in taming the text. There is no way to make this text "safe" for Christians--or Jews. There is no way to make this text an apologia for God. It is not possible, and I'm somewhat shocked that anyone tried.

I do think Wiesel's play is haunted by the Christian understanding of God, not solely the Jewish understanding. There are several moments where it seems like there's a deep desire and need to see God Himself suffer. If only one could be certain that God Himself is crucified with the persecuted Jews, then perhaps God might be worthy of love... or perhaps not. Perhaps this would simply make Him yet another clown, another puppet yanked around by the strings of history and hate.

What Wiesel does display so helplessly is the terrible cry, "If there is no God, what do we matter?" If there is no God, why does human suffering matter; why does justice matter, beyond the dumb utilitarian desire to hurt less and enjoy more; why are there Jews? It is the raw fact of the Jews, and nothing else, which stands in the face of atheism in this play. It seems as though the choice is: Either the Jews are absurd, or God is.
THREE DEFENSES OF THE BUTCH MANTILLA: This is not a post about sincerism!

But in my previous vast post on the subject, I said this:
My strong impression is that sincerism is connected to a belief that ethical discourse is the only valid philosophical discourse. Talk of right/wrong always trumps talk of beautiful/banal. (I hope this formulation indicates that I do think sincerity--like ethics-talk!--is frequently appropriate.) If you say, "Women covering their heads in church is just another sign of Paul's misogyny!", and I drawlingly reply, "Well hmmm, I'd rather see a bulldyke in a mantilla than a nun in a pantsuit"... I've stepped out of the ethical discourse into the aesthetic, and therefore forfeited my right to be taken sincerely/seriously.

(And I mean it, too! I'd clip a daggone diaper to my head if it meant that most women would wear actual pretty lace to church instead of board shorts!)

which, understandably, led some readers to say that they were not willing to get on the "misogyny is okay if it's pretty!" train I seemed to be conducting.

So here are three defenses of my position, in order from least to most persuasive-to-me.

#1. Could beauty, my lord, have better commerce than with honesty? In any case where we're negotiating a tradeoff between beauty and equality, I'll defend the practice of asking, "How much beauty for how much equality?" In this case the beauty is obvious--those headscarves and church hats are lovely!, and the various kludges women used when they were caught short without their headcoverings (such as bobby-pinning the church bulletin to their hair) strike me as charmingly humiliating and wry. Meanwhile the equality is quite minor and fairly unsettling--neither men nor women would be expected to wear some symbol of their submission to God.

However, this argument does fail to meet a major objection, which I hinted at in the Hamlet (/Ophelia) quote. The mantilla can be understood to imply that women need more signs of submission to God than men do. This is a subspecies of the "outsourcing their spiritual lives to the womenfolk" that I decried here. If we understand the mantilla this way, we oppose its beauty not only to truth but also to men's submission to God. Both of these oppositions seem to me to be much harder cases than beauty v. equality, and I'd be hard-pressed to take beauty's side here.

So ultimately I think the "tradeoff" argument fails, though the fact that I consider it a strong argument should give some sense of how I approach these issues.

#2. Spending time, nowadays it's equal, nice, it's paradise.... I might be more amenable to ditching the mantilla if it really meant that women would be equal! But it never does, you know? Ridding ourselves of these ways in which tradition beautifies our subordination never ends the subordination (and often doesn't even mitigate it); it simply replaces beautiful subordination with banal.

I note that the solution is always to ditch the specifically feminine symbols of submission, rather than universalizing them--nobody ever says that men should wear the mantilla. Julia Serano might have some sharp words about why that happens.

#3. The Man-Mary, again. If we look for ways to express both the spiritual equality of men and women, and gender difference, we may find ourselves in dangerous territory! Since I doubt adopting the yarmulke will win many friends among Our Elder Brothers in the Faith, we must look around for specifically Catholic forms of submission which are restricted to men, as the mantilla is restricted to women. Guess what we find?
KITCHEN ADVENTURES: PEAR AND BRIE. Before we get to the adventures, a quick beer review: I'm sipping a Lagunitas "Little Sumpin' Extra" ale, and the overwhelming smell and flavor is of... walnut husks. Green walnut husks. I am unconvinced that this will become a regular beer for me.

Anyway, some sandwiches! Basically, I did a bunch of variations on one basic toasted cheese sandwich containing pear, Brie, balsamic vinegar, and some form of sweet onion. The basic procedure was to set the oven to 375, halve a small ciabatta roll, fill the role with sliced pear, onion, and cheese, wrap the roll in aluminum foil and bake for 15 mins.

The variations: #1--I sauteed the onion slices in butter to caramelize them, then drizzled the pear and onions with balsamic.

#2--I roasted the onion slices in balsamic before making the sandwich.

#3--I didn't pre-cook the onions in any way, but sliced them thinly, drizzled with balsamic, and topped the brie with a bit of cayenne.

I liked the third variation the best (and it's also the easiest and quickest), but in fact they were all good. I think the flavors didn't quite meld in the first variation, but I'm not sure why. I feel like one more ingredient would make this sandwich perfect--even the third variation had a tad bit too much roll proportional to filling. I wonder if sliced apples would work? Sorrel leaves?? Or just an extra layer of pear....

Monday, September 28, 2009

THE SHOOTING PARTY: I really didn't want to dislike this movie. It seemed like that would be the result of cynicism--the thing where people try to get on top of a movie, to prevent it from hurting them.

But this thing is so heavyhanded! I mean, it is just WORLD WAR I IS COMING GENTLEMEN MAKE YOUR TIME! the entire way through, from the opening voiceover to the final title cards. There are some affecting moments (and some embarrassing ones, e.g. "God save the British Empire!") and some funny bits (I liked the costume party). But overall, the entire movie could've been replaced by a title card reading, "ENGLAND, 1913," and no insight would have been lost.
MY COLUMN in the current American Conservative is about Malcolm X Park/Meridian Hill Park. You may be able to get a PDF version by scrolling down here.

I note that this issue of AmCon quotes not only the Cramps (in my piece) but also the Dead Kennedys (in Jesse Walker's profile of Jerry Brown).

More seriously, if even half the allegations in the cover story are true, it's one of the more shocking things I've read in a while.
I tapped her on the blogwatch and said, "Do you have a beau?"
She looked at me and smiled and said she did not know...

Camassia: A correction, re: sincerism! And a post about revenge and divergent views of authority.

Sean Collins: "Is it too much to ask for horror art to inflict emotional damage?"

(I think I'd also add a category for horror art which provokes teshuvah/repentance. Some horror I've seen and loved does neither for me--Suspiria is amazing, just incredible art, but I don't think it "traumatized" me in the way Sean means, nor did it provoke any change in my behavior. But a lot of other movies--Vertigo, obviously, but also Ringu and Barton Fink--seem to me to have the potential to provoke a change in self-understanding which wreaks itself through the emotions, but beyond them, into actions.* Anyway, yeah, I get behind Sean's cri de coeur!)

(*If you think you hear a faint echo of my disagreement with Sean about the ending of Eyes Wide Shut, you're right. On the other hand, I think Sean could have easily rebutted my points in that disagreement by saying that the movie itself has the capacity to provoke teshuvah, whether or not Tom Cruise's character actually ends up there. I think that's true, and it's a very strong point against that aspect of my criticism of the movie.)

Also, this comic sounds like it might echo intriguingly against "Keela, The Outcast Indian Maiden," which is the only Eudora Welty story I really love.

VJ Morton has a huge raft of reviews from the Toronto International Film Festival. I've added at least three movies to my Netflix "save" queue on his recommendation, and will be keeping my eye out to see if any of them open in theaters down here.
He always had a great deal of sympathy for the American past; he said that Americans had tried to do what had never before even been tried--perhaps they had failed because it could not be done. Constance understood this not at all; to her America was ordinary reality, what everyone is born into, and the rest of the world romance. She had fallen in love with it at second hand.
--Randall Jarrell, Pictures from an Institution

Friday, September 18, 2009

SEAN COLLINS IS ALL OVER THE SMALL PRESS EXPO! And so are other people! And so am I!

BETHESDA, Y'ALL. 9/26 - 9/27. I can't do stuff on the Saturday until maybe 1 pm or so, but after that, I will get Human Fly all over this thing.

If you love indie comics and other stuff that is awesome, why not drop me a line so maybe we can do like a big lunch or something? I hear Bethesda has the occasional eatery despite being located beyond the bounds of civilization.
HOLY CATS, THIS IS A CLASSIC HEADLINE: "GOP frets it's too surly with the fringe on top."

Via Mark Shea.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

BOUGIE WOOGIE BABY: Additions and corrections to my most recent sincerism post.

Addition #1) I forgot to mention that the Misery essay Camassia links to sounds terrific (haven't had a chance to read it yet) and very much gets at what I'm trying to do when I say that genre fiction can be more realistic than realism if your perspective is not that of the majority.

Addition #2) She's also put up a really smart post exploring a) whether I'm just defending the cool pose, which I do think isn't true though I can see where she's getting that; and b) adding a bit of historical context.

Correction #1: As usual I was carried away by my rhetoric! I think it's wrong to say that "...Christian translation should work, I think, the other way. In other words, in the translation from Pepper LaBeija's language to Peter Sprigg's, a Christian should seek to translate Spriggish into LaBeijan rather than visa-va-va-versa." I'll defend some degree of Spriggishness because I will always defend the bourgeoisie! I don't want to join them, but I do realize that they are the people who make the world work, and the fact that I don't share that vocation shouldn't lead me to denigrate it. Besides which, my "LaBeijan" formulation suggests that Sophia herself may be found nestled comfortably within one subculture, which of course is not what I believe.

It would be more accurate to say that Christian translation should serve Truth at all times, and thus should introduce new and startling terms to both the Spriggish and LaBeijan dictionaries. And yet it's worth noting that in most cases the minority/subcultural denizen will have a sharper understanding of the majority perspective than vice versa (and will get less credit for it). But yeah, Christ must radically reshape all of our perspectives, and we must accept no existing culture as sufficient.

Correction #2: Because I am a product of all the same cultural forces I decry, I twice used "choose" when I should've said something else. In the parenthetical "(I chose my leadership persona, so doesn't that choice incorporate the persona into my 'self'?)" I think "chose" should be "accepted" or "developed" or some other verb implying both unchosen elements and the work I did to shape those elements. (There are certain styles of leadership I can't pull off, and I had to learn not to try them.)

And in the same paragraph, in the sentence, "It is leadership which guides you to the beauty or Beauty you could love enough to choose one set of syllogisms over another equally consistent," "choose" should be replaced with "embrace." I think that implies a greater degree of recognition rather than maximization of utils.
NOLI IRRITARE LEONES has been blogging about panels from the recent Depressive and Bipolar Support Association Conference. So far I've found the "Nature v Nurture Debate: Overcoming Guilt and Stigma" write-up most interesting, but if you want to read one post I expect you'll want to read others.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

IN WHICH I STILL DON'T QUOTE OSCAR WILDE!: EDITED 9/28 to fix a ridiculously stupid mistake! ...I've gotten two terrific pushbacks on my big post about sincerism. You can find Camassia's here. And Miss Ogilvy emailed me thusly:
Just a quick question in reply to your recent "sincerism" posts: where and how does a gay self-identity (as opposed to a queer self-identity, which is a bit more flexible and maybe less self-serious) fit into your arguments against sincerism? I think one could use your definition of sincerism ("requiring a sincere, authentic, honest accounting of one's thoughts and emotions," which entails wrongheaded "assumptions about our ability to know ourselves") to diagnose a gay identity as a symptom of sincerism or subservience to the sincerist ideal. Would love to hear your thoughts on this question.

And where and how does a Christian identity fit into your arguments against sincerism? What would a Christian apology for irony look like? Might be interesting to try on the following proposition for size: Protestantism serves the sincerist ideal; Catholicism does not.

Am feeling very sincerist myself as I sort through Gay Christian Whatnot. But I agree with you that the sincerist ideal is a mess.

I think it makes the most sense to reply to both at once. What follows will be so scattershot, it'll make a blunderbuss look like a laser. But I never promised you a precision garden!

From stupid through cute and maybe eventually ending up in worthwhile, let's proceed with our education, one and all....

1) I would never have cited journalism as a sincerist profession! But then my genealogy of the profession looks like "Journalism in Tennessee" --> SOMETHING ELSE AWESOME TK --> the New York Post. I suspect that there are other valid genealogies!

2) Maybe helpful: My problem is not with sincerity. I've seen women at the pregnancy center do amazing work through transparent personal sincerity. (It may be relevant to Camassia's comments that the woman I'm especially thinking of here is black? But I've also seen white women make amazing impacts, forging incredible connections with women who clearly wanted a sincere and heartfelt woman to talk to. In my own counseling, I try to shift between more heartfelt and self-revealing talk as vs. more complicit and nudge-wink talk based on what the client seems to be open to. More on cultures and subcultures, and leadership, in a bit.) My beef is with the attitude that sincerity is always better than other modes of self-presentation. And this I think is a desperately American form of crudeness and anti-aesthetic, democratic/majoritarian well-meaning callowness. More on this in what follows.

3) Camassia's point about anti-sincere strategies serving minority communities in their internal communiques against outside understanding or this-bridge-called-my-back-building is fantastic. I never would've thought of that, actually, and I really take to heart her defense of translation even though I think I still partly disagree.

Some things need to be universally translatable, like the Gospel. But does everything need to translate? Can we preserve some turf where the translator is still a traitor, and if you want to learn the language you'd better be ready to go native?

And what does it mean to be a Christian if your answer to those questions--like mine is, right now--is "no" and "yes"?

I'm not sure, and I think Camassia and Miss Ogilvy are both on to something supremely important. All I can really say in response is that I suspect that sincerism, like boboism ("bourgeois bohemianism"), attempts to assimilate the minority into the majority and translate in that direction--whereas Christian translation should work, I think, the other way. In other words, in the translation from Pepper LaBeija's language to Peter Sprigg's, a Christian should seek to translate Spriggish into LaBeijan rather than visa-va-va-versa.

I am open to accusations that this contrapposto stance simply reflects my own need to shore up my bohemian self-image. (She said, with a hipshot grin.)

4) I'm tempted to second Miss Ogilvy by saying that the Protestant denigration of "repetitive prayer" is a sincerist stance. I'm not sure if that's true really, because believe me, Protestantism is something I understand about as much as I understand the higher math. But here's something I wrote about repetitive prayer. Confession seems to work (for me, anyway?) somewhat similarly, in that the practice is so humiliating that it makes it unnecessary to dig the awl of self-scrutiny too far in: If I weren't really sorry I WOULDN'T BE HERE, ZOMG.

I think Miss O's suggestion that coming out is an inherently sincerist act is totally fascinating, since of course the gay subculture has traditionally (!) been one of the least sincerist, and yet I totally take her point about how coming out to oneself feels. Anyone have comments? I am at a loss!

5) I can think of two main categories of experience which prompted me to articulate why I think sincerism so often provokes bien-pensant stupidity on one hand, and cruelty-with-the-tweezers on the other. I have a hard time talking about sincerism because I find it much easier to point at than to define, and therefore it's easy to pat myself on the back for identifying examples. There's a way in which rationalism, for all its obvious falsehoods, is humbler than prudence, which requires so much trust in one's own perceptions. (Even if the examples are taken from my own life, there's still a showiness in the decision to display them in the light of my current better judgment.)

But here are the experiences. First, when I've been in a leadership position I've dealt with women (always women... I'm going to say this is cultural, and the guys would've framed their objections to my leadership this way if they'd thought it would win them masculinity points) who thought that the mask of command, as such, was inauthentic. Presenting a different persona when in leadership meant lying.

I think this is wrong on both rationalist grounds (I chose my leadership persona, so doesn't that choice incorporate the persona into my "self"?) and, obviously, aesthetic grounds. Leadership is an aesthetic act. It isn't rationalist, because there's always another syllogism, or an alternative premise, you can pose against the syllogism which would require of you something you don't want to do in the service of someone or Someone you don't love. It is leadership which guides you to the beauty or Beauty you could love enough to choose one set of syllogisms over another equally consistent.

So um yeah. I will, if necessary, pay for your trust by sharing some deep dark painful secret--but I'll respect you a lot less in the morning. I should be able to lead you without groveling for your pitying endorsement of my perspective.

b) I've several times tried to "relate" on a deep dark authentic level with someone going through a kind of suffering I can't share. I've tried to ask How You're Doing. I've tried to Be Real.

In no case has this ever been the right thing to do.

I get that people with much more sophisticated senses of how to be in the world (like Camassia) understand that what you do, when you're dealing with another person's desperation, is listen and be there and try to roll with what they give you, and not push. I don't think any of that is sincerism, even though it's sincere. But I do think sincerism is what I believed when I thought it was right to press my fingers against other people's bruises. I didn't think I was really acting as their friend unless I poked. I could not have been more wrong.

So that's where I'm coming from, on this question.

6) I'm not sure I want to overphilosophize here, since really I'm not sure what exactly sincerism is--like I said, it's easier to point at than to anatomize. But I am tempted to argue that sincerism is a part or a result of two philosophical tendencies I abhor anyway. ("You want a second opinion? Okay, you're ugly!")

a) My strong impression is that sincerism is connected to a belief that ethical discourse is the only valid philosophical discourse. Talk of right/wrong always trumps talk of beautiful/banal. (I hope this formulation indicates that I do think sincerity--like ethics-talk!--is frequently appropriate.) If you say, "Women covering their heads in church is just another sign of Paul's misogyny!", and I drawlingly reply, "Well hmmm, I'd rather see a bulldyke in a mantilla than a nun in a pantsuit"... I've stepped out of the ethical discourse into the aesthetic, and therefore forfeited my right to be taken sincerely/seriously.

(And I mean it, too! I'd clip a daggone diaper to my head if it meant that most women would wear actual pretty lace to church instead of board shorts!)

b) And on a deeper level, I really think sincerism is a subset of the Heideggerian fetish for authenticity and commitment. In this worldview, on the top level, Truth is found within--it's self-expression. I know that there is no philosophy without some level of self-trust. A radical skeptic can purchase bread, even though he knows it might be a hallucination, but he can never practice philosophy, because Sophia is nothing if she isn't real. (Even Derrida ETA 9/28 DESCARTES!!! "knew that he existed, and that he spoke French"!) But it is possible to distinguish between a philosophy of expressing the God within and a philosophy in which the self strives to recognize and love the God without--a philosophy in which recognition takes the place of expression, and submission is another word for love.

On the lower level, of course, "my real true deep self" becomes simply whatever my culture/subculture/biology/some complex interaction of all three tells me to value. That's one reason Heidegger's Rector's Address (which I used to be able to quote, as a party trick) is actually a valid conclusion from his premises. The naivete of sincerism is that it assumes that the self expressed will come pre-tamed.

Miss Manners knows better.