Thursday, May 27, 2010

THIS SUNDAY AT 4.30, the National Gallery of Art is showing Alain Cavalier's Therese, a St. T. biopic I raved about here. (Or if you'd rather know why Cavalier should make a werewolf movie, click here!)
POKER FACE: So various recent events, including but not limited to the bizarre Elena Kagan media mishegoss*, have led me to think about coming out/being out, and why my experiences cause me to think it's usually the best policy. Insert all the obvious disclaimers (I realize that I'm not you, I don't believe in advice columns, my family is supportive and my career would've been bizarre anyway, I have no religious superiors to answer to other than God, etc), but here are, at least, some things to think about.

[*ETA: Argh, just so no one can misread me: Nothing in this post is a defense of others' interest in Kagan's boudoir. Nor do I have--nor do I want!--any information about said boudoir. It's more that the kerfuffle about her, in conjunction with several other events which would take even more time and disclaimers to cover, prompted various thoughts. And now back to our show.]

I read somewhere a really intense description, which is echoed to a certain extent in Same-Sex Desire in Victorian Religious Culture, of one way being gay may affect your perceptions: Because you're forced into extreme vigilance over your responses to sensuality, you become hyperaware of sensual realities. I don't know that this is true for everyone, obviously, but it does resonate with me. And this hyperawareness, while often unpleasant or humiliating, can also conduce to both artistic accomplishment and Catholic faith.

But there's a different kind of hyperawareness which is provoked by the closet: strict and deliberate control of one's speech. And this kind of control and self-consciousness destroys sprezzatura in conversation and prompts instead a really fearful, "only say what you're certain won't be understood," blandly conformist way of talking and writing.

The closet also offers a lot of temptations to sin; I'd say for many people it just is a near occasion of sin. There's the obvious temptation to lie. There's the temptation to throw other people under the bus to make yourself look more hetero, or butcher or whatever. There's the temptation to deny or speak uncharitably to openly gay friends (or, for that matter, enemies). There's the temptation to cut yourself off from other people so they don't get too close--to avoid friendship, and avoid help. Being in the closet makes it harder to act rightly. To the extent that being out involves humiliation and lost opportunities (although it is also extraordinarily freeing and opens a lot of doors you may not have realized existed) I would say that sometimes you have to journey through what Spenser called "the Gracious Valley of Humiliation."

Many of these same beneficial effects of being openly gay come with being "out" as celibate-for-religious-reasons also. You also avoid giving scandal. I personally find celibacy a more embarrassing confession than lovely old lesbianism, but obviously that is just all the more reason to be open about it!

So again, in any individual case I can't tell you what to do, but I think it's worth defending choices which may make your life harder, or close off some opportunities you really want, but which also make your speech and life vastly more interesting and more likely to be virtuous.

(Also! I resent Lady Gaga as much as any right-thinking child of the '80s, but you really, really should click that link in the post title. It's not as amazing as this, but then, what is?)
AT MARRIAGEDEBATE NOW: interracial marriage rates, "Come for the pizza, stay for the deconstruction of masculinity," how pregnancy is viewed in Israel vs. Japan, surrogacy laws may change in India, and more.
FASCINATING STUFF. The commenters offer a few more possible explanations, including at least one in which the causal arrow runs the other way.
DEPLOYING ONE HORROR TO EXCUSE ANOTHER. Or, how Holocaust survivors are now being branded Soviet war criminals. Via Mark Oppenheimer.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

"CRADLE WILL ROCK": My column for Inside Catholic; it's about cradle Catholics and how they can be awesome.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

BE CAREFUL--TODAY MAY BE THE FIRST DAY OF THE REST OF YOUR LIFE: A post about how every sin is like a child.

[This post talks about other people. I'm 100% certain that no one, including both my best friend and the other people described, will be able to figure out what I'm talking about, which is the only reason I'm posting this. I've done a lot of awful stuff in public, because I'm awesome like that, so if you know me just assume that this post is about something worse than the thing you're thinking of.]

On Saturday I went with friends to revisit the National Gallery's “Sacred Made Real” exhibit (see below). It's a sufficiently intense exhibit that I couldn't take too much of it. So for a little while my friends were still in the dark monastic gallery rooms, studded with paintings and sculptures of God in agony, and I was standing in the big sunlit atrium staring out the window at an American boulevard. And I thought about you again.

You and I were friends once. Not for too long. The reasons we're not close now are partly your fault, partly mine, partly just the inevitable nexus of circumstance and personality and nobody's fault but the big pinball machine of life.

But I can still think of scenes, moments, in which I sinned—and I had no idea, at that time, that I was sinning against you and that these sins would form part of the barrier between us later on. I (hope I) would never have done those things if I had known.

The thing with sin is, you cannot control it. You birth your sin and send it out into the world and then it does whatever it wants, to whomever it wants to do it to. You aren't totally helpless (except when you are), just as parents aren't totally helpless except when they are. They can educate their children, and you can try to mitigate your sin. Sometimes you can make some kind of partial amends. (I am not sure I believe that any sins are fully amended in this life. I'm not sure I believe in any real temporal reconciliation.) Sometimes the relationship you damaged heals, and sometimes it's even “stronger in the broken places,” as I think Hemingway said, and that isn't to your credit but you still get to enjoy it. But a lot of the time there is no way to attempt amends without causing your victim further pain. I can think of at least one person (not the main person this post is about) to whom I desperately want to apologize, but I know that reestablishing contact would be more likely to hurt than to help, and the attempt would be more about my guilt than about the other person's pain. I still pray for that person, which is pretty much all I can do now.

You can have high expectations for your sin, as parents have aspirations for their children. In the most vivid moments in which I sinned against my friend, I sometimes expected that my sins would bring us closer together. But you don't control it. You don't get to choose. Sin is not a domino rally, where if you were just acutely insightful enough you could see the whole pattern and predict and direct the repercussions of knocking over that very first domino. Sin is a lit match thrown into a fireworks factory: Sometimes nothing too bad happens to the people you love (I mean, you know, other than Jesus). Sometimes something beautiful happens, as God chooses to make your sin a source of grace for you or for others. But sometimes the catastrophe occurs, chaos come again. And you don't get to guide your sin or make it do what you want it to do or keep it from doing what you most desperately want it to avoid.

Sin is your child, and you are as helpless as any parent. I read once a mother, quoting someone else, saying that your child is “your heart walking around outside your body.” Sin is everything that isn't your heart, or shouldn't be, walking around outside your body—and, once the deed is done, outside your will.
AESTHETICS ENCOMPASSES BUT DOES NOT EXCLUDE REASON: Or, like the ads say about the ACLU, everybody needs a natural-lawyer sometime.
"THE GLORY AND THE GRIME": My Commonweal review of the National Gallery of Art's exhibit of Spanish painting and painted sculpture (through May 31). The review is subscribers-only for now. I'll let you know if that changes. I will say that if you have any interest in e.g. Zurbaran, or the bloody-mindedness of Spanish Catholic art, you need to see this. It is shockingly emotional--I had to talk myself into moving around the sculptures so I could see the Virgin's face--and, as I argue in the CW piece, intensely stylized.

Every Christian in Washington, DC and its surroundings should go see this exhibit. I note that it features statues from "working churches"--I mean, last year some of these statues were paraded through the local streets during Lent. This is Christ as alarm clock, or cell-phone alarm: Wake up. There is something more than work which you need to do.

The exhibit is free. (Are you?)

Finally, the giant squid movie I deserve.

Via DLB.
Mrs. Anthony knew instinctively that Mrs. Pettigrew was a kindly woman. Her instinct was wrong.
--I feel like people have been trying to make me read Muriel Spark for years. This thing, quoted in Commonweal from Spark's novel Memento Mori, has finally succeeded.

Monday, May 10, 2010

I CAN'T LET THE CLOCK STRIKE MIDNIGHT without noting that this is the feast of St. Job. I spent it at the pregnancy center, where I will also spend the Feast of the Visitation, because every day is self-parody day!
BOSS LADY. Maggie Gallagher has a column on the whole red vs. blue families shtik. I generally think she's better in books than in columns, but this one is really good, assuming she's right about the numbers. More soonish.
SAVE IT FOR THE MORNING AFTER. Immediate thoughts on Iron Man 2. Maybe more when I see it again. Abundant spoilers!
If you make God bleed, then people will not believe in him.
--the least scientifically-accurate line from Iron Man 2. Spoken by a Russian, no less!

Thursday, May 06, 2010

PHILOSOPHY WORKS IN PRACTICE, BUT NOT IN THEORY is my basic response to this discussion of "Great Books" propaganda. In theory yes, Great Booksiness is cultural relativism in cultural conservative wool. In practice, if you have a nexus of friendships and a structure for leadership, you can come to understand philosophy as eros, the self-changing love of truth. It's a practice which requires humility and desire and the longing for the glimpsed but (for an atheist) unnamed Beloved.

I still think this is the best way to understand me and how I think and what I care about. This and maybe even this might also be relevant.

I'm thinking a lot, right now, about the fact that philosophy requires both heightened arrogance and heightened humility. On the one hand you have to be willing to spout off about everything! You have to be willing to talk about subjects in which you have all the expertise of a journalist, i.e. a professional dilettante. If you won't argue about subjects beyond your knowledge, you can't lead and you can't grow. But at the same time you need to be radically aware of your own incapacities, willing to be utterly reshaped by other people and their descriptions of their experiences and the conclusions they draw from that experience. I don't have any especial formula for resolving this dilemma; I just think it's important that philosophers understand that their practice has spiritual downsides of pride and vanity as well as the perhaps more obvious spiritual upside of Socratean "I know nothing" humility.

I very much welcome you all's comments since I have no idea how to formulate general advice here, and while I accept that maybe there is no general advice to give, I'd still like a sense of how actual humans who aren't me attempt to negotiate the arrogance/humility aspect of philosophy.

Original link via PES.
HOW IS JONATHAN RAUCH SO AWESOME? I mean, yeah, this isn't the column I would write about Red Families vs. Blue Families, but it is still so much more focused on the most important issues than approximately 99% of the reviews/articles/responses I've read so far, and so completely free from pharisaism . When I went to see him talk about his gay-marriage book he was totally self-overhearing, too, which as you know is one of my absolute most admired traits in any person. It's just so refreshing to see someone actively avoid opportunities to "charge them for it."

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

HELL IS FOR CHILDREN: Because my life is one giant roulette wheel and I am the shiny ball, I decided to start my Eastertide by reading a 500-page Hungarian Holocaust novel.

Janos Nyiri's Battlefields and Playgrounds is one of the best novels I've read in a long time.

Personal digression, included because it might be of interest, but skip this if you want to know about why the book is so powerful: I admit that I actually haven't read that much about the Holocaust. I've read both of my grandfather's books (The Uses of Adversity, and also The Pavement of Hell which I recommend highly--and WHOA, Amazon says there's one about the Warsaw Uprising, which I need and am ordering RIGHT NOW) and a few other things e.g. Maus and Jane Yolen's novel Briar Rose. But I have the impression, which could be wrong, that when I was growing up there was a concerted movement within American Jewry to move away from focusing on the Holocaust--a sense that Jews needed to ensure that their children didn't see Judaism as defined by attempted genocide. So while I felt really strong personal connections to the depictions of Jewish life in e.g. Stories My Grandfather Should Have Told Me or The Power of Light, I didn't seek out Holocaust narratives or feel especially connected to them. I didn't think about which of the neighbors I could trust to hide me. I'm conflicted about whether that's the best way to address the Holocaust for Jewish children; hatred of the Jews is intense and horrific and longstanding enough that I do think you don't really understand Jewish life unless you acknowledge it, but at the same time obviously Judaism is not actually defined by other people's reactions to Jews, and the Book of Esther is not the only book. To the extent that this whole digression is relevant to Nyiri, it's just to say that I don't really know what's typical for a "Holocaust novel." All I know is that I've never read one like this.

The protagonist is a fierce, tough, batteringly self-assured little boy. Seriously, he calls his mother a whore! (Because she takes up with a Gentile after divorcing his father.) He is ferocious and completely convinced of the rightness of his own perspective. The child's-eye perspective felt completely real. Joszka is rarely able to view things from other people's perspectives. That protects him from much of the horror around him--but not all of it.

This is also a Holocaust novel where the actual devastation of the Jewish people takes place off-screen for almost the entire time. The hell-tide is creeping nearer and nearer to his family every moment, and the reader isn't allowed to forget that, but it isn't until very late in the novel that we even see one corpse, let alone a sense of the total devastation which the novel's denouement reveals.

In the final third or so of the novel theology finally rears its ugly head. There's an amazing chapter in which Joszka's profligate, almost entirely absent father (and presumably you can write your own theological parallels there) returns to talk with him about God, and argues that the Jewish way of relating to God differs from the Christian in that the Christian believes in total unconditional surrender. Thus Christianity is a slave morality, and Christians are psychologically trained to view the world in terms of slaves and masters. So they think they are God's slaves and the Jews are theirs. Judaism by contrast, he argues, is a wrestling with God and a treaty with Him. When God blesses the Jews, the Jews can trust Him enough to bless Him back. The novel's characters really vividly portray both the degree to which this is a true portrait of Christianity, and the degree to which this is a false portrait of Judaism. I was reminded of The Trial of God.

This book is amazingly compelling. It's actually fun to read for a long time, since even as the readers' dread never abates we're still mostly following Joszka's attempts to manipulate all the adults around him; and when it stops being fun, it starts being painfully suspenseful. I can't recommend this highly enough.

The notes at the end are in large part a compendium of Catholics Choosing Hell, so there's that, also.

Monday, May 03, 2010

THOUGH I PUT YOU ON A PEDESTAL, I PUT YOU ON THE PILL: Some thoughts about Neil LaBute, Reasons to Be Pretty. At the Studio Theater 'til May 16, I think, and this really is a good production with good acting, even though I'm gonna be pretty rough on the play itself.

Even with an amazing actor as Kent (Thom Miller, who's really fantastic and hilarious), LaBute's script is way too on-the-nose. I mean I get that your story is about a manchild becoming a very slightly more adult human man. You don't need the immediate within-scene contrast where Kent, the bad guy, stomps on Greg-the-Jesus-is-this-what-passes-for-a-good-guy's sports jersey and then accuses Greg of being childish.

There are real philosophical fights about what counts as childish, and that's maybe a part of why I'm so irritated by the cheap LaBute choices. I mean, rebellion against one's parents or culture can be presented as adulthood or as "I don't wanna!", and that's actually a really interesting clash. Sorting out the degree to which one's choices are reflections of, reactions against, or more complexly related to parental choices is also a really interesting character arc. (I KNOW HOW MUCH I'M PROJECTING, LEAVE ME ALONE!!!) But LaBute in this play chooses to ignore any and all parental influence (not how actual heterosexual relationships work, come on!) and treats his characters as deracinated individuals. No real love of home is ever presented, nor is rebellion against home. Characters are generic "Americans," not specific humans with specific parents and loves and habits.

I guess I'm especially displeased with the fact that LaBute sets up his play as a critique of, like, American gender pressures, but in fact this production ends up seeming to suggest that all of contemporary American neuroses around looks and gender and manhood are simply inevitable byproducts of heterosexuality. Which, like, I'm the first to say that straight people are the Problem and heterosexuality is inherently difficult, but anyone with imagination should be able to suggest that culture isn't monolithic and we might at least replace our contemporary neuroses with different ones. I don't know. I'd really love to know what actual straight people think of this play or this production, because it felt so intensely alien to me.

This isn't a play about becoming a man. This is a play about knuckling under to the status quo--even the humiliations are only the ones which would make the audience feel the ultimate normative, boring masculinity of the hero. I guess that's what I really hated, since I think men can be kind of awesome, in the right lighting.