Monday, September 30, 2013

To Michelle, After a Hundred Days of Marriage

The more I love you, the more I see there is of you.
Whenever I look in your eyes, I glimpse ever-new frontiers
Opening up ahead, my Michelle, oh most endless of wives.

A hundred days isn't enough to begin to learn you, to love you.
I think I might start to fathom your depths in a hundred more years
But I do not think I would come to the end in a hundred more lives.


Sunday, September 29, 2013

Something Different

As well as being Irish and a Papist, I am also a library assistant. (Not a librarian-- a common error.) This is something I wrote for my library's own blog a few years ago.

Fantastic Library Facts


So you think libraries are dull, huh? Well, you couldn’t be more wrong if you said that 432.445 was the sub-division of the Dewey decimal code that pertained to freshwater molluscs.

Here are some mind-bending, eye-opening library facts!

· Before Hulagu Khan’s attack on Baghdad in 1258, he told his Mongols to “spare none...save for the keepers of the library”!

· In 1949, Samuel L. Goldwyn asked the library of Trinity College Dublin to lend him the actual Book of Kells for his now-forgotten historical film, The Viking Invasions. The request was denied.

· To this day, Utah libraries refuse to stock books by Arthur Conan Doyle, because of his unflattering portrayal of Mormonism in the Sherlock Holmes story A Study in Scarlet.

· When a particularly devout librarian reproached Mark Twain for returning a book overdue, he is reputed to have replied: “Your Saviour has been overdue for some two thousand years, but you don’t complain about him, do you?”

· For several decades, speaking the title of Tom Brown’s Schooldays was considered unlucky by Ontario librarians in the same way that saying “Macbeth” is taboo in the theatre business. It was referred to as “the schoolboy book” instead. It is believed that the superstition began when two librarians, in the same month, suffered heart attacks while lending out this book.

· The smallest public library in the world is Horam County Library in Maryland, America. It is located behind the counter of a drugstore and contains fewer than fifty books!

· A librarian in Suffolk taped a cheque for a hundred pounds between page 188 and 189 of his library’s copy of Finnegans Wake in 1984. It was still there ten years later...despite the book being borrowed over a hundred times in that period!

· Afficionados of the board game Cluedo claim that Dr. Black is found dead in the library more often than in any other room, and that the trend spookily bucks the law of averages.

· Stephen Spielberg had the idea for Indiana Jones when he saw a man in earth-stained clothes and a battered fedora borrowing a thick tome about Aztec ruins at his local library.

· Sigmund Freud, in his famous Interpretation of Dreams, claims that dreaming about a library is a sign of “a narcissistic-sadistic complex”!

· In a 2002 psychological study at the University of Minnesota, students were shown mugshots of workers from different occupations and asked to rate their attractiveness. Librarians finished top…ahead of actors and models!

· As far as we know, the most-borrowed library book in the world which is still in circulation is a 1930 edition of The House at Pooh Corner belonging to New Plymouth City Library, New Zealand. It has been borrowed more than fifty thousand times!

Note: All the above “facts” are complete and utter fabrications. Although it is true that librarians are much more attractive than models.

A library in America saw this on the internet and asked me if they could use it for an exhibition, without noticing (at first) that it was a spoof. I don't know if they used it in the end or not. I love these kinds of lists, so I wasn't entirely making fun.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Read me on Paper!

I have an article in the latest issue of The Catholic Voice newspaper, asking why there are no Christian apologists of the stature of C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton in our time. Go out and buy it!

I've also had some articles in the ten-times-yearly Australian Catholic magazine, Annales Australasia, which has been published for an amazing one hundred and twenty-three years. Readers are probably not aware of this magazine, but it's well worth subscribing to, even if you're not Australian. I'll have an article in the next issue to appear (also on Lewis, as it happens).

Monday, September 23, 2013

Talk about Globalization

This is a poster up in UCD right now, promoting an Irish language coffee morning.

There is nothing immoral in going to Starbucks, but I do detect a certain irony in supporting the Irish language (which is a language in need of revival and preservation), while also using the iconography of (and giving free advertising to!) a franchise that has become a byword for globalization and homogenization-- the very forces that are, arguably, squeezing out national traditions and character everywhere.

Again-- there is nothing immoral in going to Starbucks, nor do I have anything against anyone who works there or goes there. Indeed, I've been to Starbucks a few times. It was in America. The service was excellent, the atmosphere was excellent, the iced frappé was lovely. I even love their logo. But I don't want every café to be a Starbucks. I want some cafés to have rickety tables and hard scones and two flavours of sandwich and a person's name over the door. I want some cafés to be unique to that street, that town.

The members of the Irish language society could justly say to me-- "What are you doing to preserve national traditions? We're the ones speaking Irish."

And they'd be right. I'm not criticizing them. I just think it's a rather symbolic and telling image.

Céad Míle Failte

Over the weekend, this blog had its hundred thousandth hit. Yayyy!

I set it up two years ago, writing this in the first post:

There are too few voices raised in loyalty to the teaching of the Church's Magisterium; so few, I feel justified in launching yet another blog into cyberspace. (Also, I can't believe nobody has named a blog Irish Papist yet.) In fact, the immediate stimulus was an RTE programme I heard mere hours ago, in which Charlie Bird interviewed various (carefully selected) Catholic commentators who all agreed that institutional change (oh deliciously vague word, change!) was imperative. The usual attacks upon the Vatican and the "clerical mindset" ensued.

The idea in this blog is to provide a rapid and rolling response to the many attacks on the Church in Ireland. Will I have the time and patience to stick to that plan? To quote St. Paul, "I do not know; God knows". But I'm going to give it a go. I hope you join me for the ride, and don't hestitate to chip in!


Well, as anyone could tell from reading a few posts, I didn't exactly follow that plan. Not that I think that's necessarily a bad thing, since being confined to "a rapid and rolling response to the many attacks on the Church in Ireland" seems somewhat reactionary (in the literal sense) and negative to me now.

When I started including more personal posts, with no immediate or obvious relation to religion, I did so rather gingerly. I was delighted that these posts often received a warm response. I know I've defended this practice several times now, perhaps to tedium, but I do feel rather self-conscious about it so I will repeat...

I write like that because it's the kind of thing I most like to read-- by far. I've always loved the kind of writing where the author addresses you directly, almost as a friend, makes asides and jokes and autobiographical comments, rambles, and generally talks like someone sitting next to you in a pub rather than a lecturer at a podium. I'm thinking of the newspaper columns of Keith Waterhouse and of Myles Na Gopaleen, the articles and essays of G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis and George Orwell, the humorous compositions of David Sedaris, the film reviews of Roger Ebert, the books and columns and blog of Peter Hitchens, the articles written by Barbara Mikkelson on the urban legends website Snopes.com, the books and blog of the Catholic apologist Mark Shea, Stephen King's non-fiction book about the horror genre Danse Macabre, and many other examples. (Indeed, I would be grateful for any suggestions for similar reading.)

In general, I detest impersonality in writing, or writing that restricts itself severely to the subject at hand. I like authors who nudge you excitedly and whisper, "We're alive and isn't it amazing? Hey, look at that over there! That reminds me of...". That might sound cutesie but it's the best way I can think of putting it.

To a Catholic, faith is not something that is one detachable part of his or her life-- rather it pervades and influences everything. I believe that all the moments of wonder and joy and insight in my life were (and are) beacons on the path to God.

I am very much alive to the danger of idolatry, of celebrating something that is perhaps an obstacle or a path away from God rather than something that leads us to Him. I have no theological qualifications and I often think of putting a disclaimer on this site, stressing that I write under correction and everything I say has to be tested against the teaching of the Church. Jesus told us that we will render an account for every idle word on the Last Day. The Letter of James speaks of that unruly member, the tongue, which is restless and evil and full of deadly poison. On the other hand, the apostle Paul said: "And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him." So I dare to think it is OK for a layman to write from a Catholic perspective, and to range widely while so doing.

I don't flatter myself that my blog fulfils any great evangelistic function, but I like to think there is some aspect of evangelism to it. Who knows but that someone might, just might, come across this blog and have some of her preconceptions about the Faith weakened, or that my particular slant just might scratch the particular itch of some seeker? Or, indeed, that I might hit upon some thought that will be inspirational to a practicing Catholic? I hope for this.

Since writing is what I'm good at (I hope), I do hope to use my pen to serve God, and if this blog doesn't actual fufil that, I hope it at least prepares me to do it in some other way.

Above everything else, I love writing this blog. I really do. I've never written anything that gave me such pleasure, and rarely done anything that gave me such pleasure, either. Time and time again, I've sat down at the computer, rather nervously trying to give expression to some idea or some mood that has haunted me for many years, become deliciously absorbed in the attempt, enjoyed a huge sense of accomplishment when I felt I had succeeded to some degree...and then felt insanely happy that other people knew what I was talking about and also found it worthwhile. That kind of thing is gratifying beyond all words.

And, of course, I married my wife Michelle during the lifetime of this blog, which gives it very special associations for me. Everything I write here is dedicated to her, as well as being in the name of the Lord Jesus.

So thank you, thank you, thank you, everybody who has ever read this blog! I really appreciate your time, your patience (!), your kind words, and (in the spirit of the lines written above) I consider you a friend.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Fr. Dwight Longenecker on the Pope's interview in America magazine

Fr. Dwight Longenecker, whose Standing on my Head is one of the better Catholic blogs out there, has a very interesting piece about the interview with Pope Francis that hit the headlines yesterday.

I find it interesting because the very same thought struck me yesterday, as I was reading the interview and thinking about it for the rest of the night.

I thought: How can the Holy Father say Catholics talk about homosexuality, abortion and contraception all the time? I virtually never hear Irish priests talk about any of those things. It's true that the laity talk about them more, and it may be true that many more traditionally-minded Catholics (like me) have become too defensive, and possibly too pugnacious, about disputed points of doctrine. On the other hand, I do hear the Gospel of God's love and forgiveness preached all the time. If there is any lack of balance, I thought, surely it is not on the side of preaching about sin and doctrine.

And it did occur to me...is this a matter of Pope Francis's background? Are things different in South America? Are people there, as Fr. Longenecker suggests, more conscious of sin and of Christ's offer of redemption, and is this what they thirst for? People in Western Europe don't seem at all burdened by the thought of sin, though maybe they are and it is simply at a submerged level.

In any case, I do think Catholics should take their lead from the Pope and have faith that the Holy Spirit is guiding him.

Conversation Piece

Sarah sat at a desk with Anne
For a whole school year, before life began.
They spoke about teachers and friends and TV,
They spoke about everything endlessly.
They would walk home together from school, and when
They were home they would phone and start talking again.
They would pass notes in class. The hours in a day
Were too few for all that they had to say.

Then life happened. Sarah’s family
Moved to Canada, and she didn’t see
Anne for a decade. Anne married the year
She qualified as an engineer.
Sarah drifted from job to job
And from Harvey to Philip and Scott to Bob
Until one day, between jobs and men,
She got on a plane to see Ireland again.

They met in the Marigold café
Where they used to go on a Saturday.
Anne recognized Sarah right away
And they sat down to croissants and café au lait.

They talked about Canada, marriage, work
And whatever happened to Deirdre Burke.
They laughed about boy bands breaking up
But by time Anne filled her second cup
The memories of their twelve shared years
Were drying up like a schoolgirl’s tears.

“I like your ear-rings”. “Oh, thanks.” “So how
Is your father doing?” “He’s happier now.”

Around them, at table on table, the sea
Of conversation lapped easily.
Anne looked at Sarah, and Sarah at Anne,
Trying to see the Nirvana fan
Or the girl who hid in the teacher’s room
But she wasn’t there. A delicate gloom
Hung over the bright Left Bank décor.
How on Earth had they spoken so much before?
Two people with only ghosts in common—
A friendship lost between girl and woman.
Two strangers sitting in some café—
There is always too much or too little to say.


Note: The inspiration for this poem was when an old schoolfriend of mine told me that she and her best friend in class used to walk home talking all the way and then phone each other as soon as they got home. That little anecdote struck me for so many reasons; the sweetness and intimacy of girlhood and female friendships, something that is really foreign to friendships between males; the memory of being tremendously shy as a child and wondering what people spoke about to their friends, and the anxiety that I would have nothing to say in the same situation; meeting people you haven't seen for many years and realizing that you have less to say, despite the fact that you have years of different experiences to share, then when you saw each other every day; and a general fascination with what people talk about to each other. When I went on a pre-marriage course with my fianceé, there was an "open" session where the moderators stepped back and let the participants ask questions of the group. My question was: "What do you actually talk about to each other?" I was frightened my topic would be a damp squib (the questions were written on pieces of paper, put in a bowl and read out anonymously) but it led to a lot of discussion. Thankfully, I haven't had any dearth of things to talk about with Michelle!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Archbishop of Dublin Criticizes Catholic Blogs

In a recent address, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin made some withering remarks about Catholic blogs.

He said: "There is a growing tendency to “tabloidism” in sectors of the Catholic press and there is a growing and worrying phenomenon of blogs, which are not just partial and sectarian but at times very far away from the charity with which the truth should be expressed."

His Excellency didn't seem to differentiate between bad blogs and good blogs.

He also said this about the Church's use of social media:

There is a temptation for us to think that we are using modern media and social communication and not notice that have failed to understand what is involved. It is not just a question of having a website and posting You-tube presentations. All you have to do is look at the number of hits some of these presentations have to see that they are actually not fostering dialogue. For many who are seeking deep answers, there are times when all we offer is a trivial and bickering inward looking Church which do not really reach out to the needs and challenges of living the faith in our society.

Reading this on the same day as the Holy Father's interview with America magazine, which seems full of bombshells to me, leaves me in something of a whirl.

I doubt Archbishop Martin will ever come across this blog, but if he does, I hope he would take into account posts like these before he condemns Catholic blogs as not attempting to "reach out to the needs and challenges of living the faith in our society":

http://irishpapist.blogspot.ie/2013/07/a-conversation-with-god-part-one-not-to.html


http://irishpapist.blogspot.ie/2013/07/a-conversation-with-god-part-two.html

http://irishpapist.blogspot.ie/2013/07/a-conversation-with-god-part-three.html


http://irishpapist.blogspot.ie/2013/05/is-christianity-cult.html


http://irishpapist.blogspot.ie/2013/05/my-letter-in-irish-times.html

Bad or good, I was at least trying to do exactly what the Archbishop described.

If I seem to be reacting defensively to the Archbishop, that is not my intention. I do think that a Catholic owes his Bishop, still more his Archbishop, all due deference and his words have left me very thoughtful. I have been to two Masses celebrated by Archbishop Martin, and on both occasions I was struck by his air of earnestness. The first time, at Midnight Mass in the Pro-Cathedral, he stood at the doors outside shaking the hand of everybody who left, which seemed to me like a very beautiful and humble gesture. So I cannot help but pay attention to what he says.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Chimes at Midnight

If I were to die this very day...

If I were to die this very day, I would have walked alone on a deserted beach, and stood in a crowd of untold thousands in London on New Year's Eve, with my wife-to-be.

I would have flown over the Atlantic Ocean, looking at the clouds glowing beneath me. I would have heard a tune played on an organ made of stone, in an underground cavern.

I would have played blind-man's-bluff, charades, beggar-my-neighbour, Cluedo, hide-and-seek, Pooh sticks, and a game invented by me and my brothers that involved trying to hit each other with the rubber base of a hospital crutch, first bouncing it against the floor.

I would have been a socialist, an Irish nationalist, an anti-Irish anti-nationalist, an anti-modernist, an atheist, an agnostic, an anglophile, a Judophile, a Luddite, a monarchist, a eugenicist (unfortunately), a Catholic, and a fan of Liverpool Football Club.

I would have sat in a field with other neighbourhood boys, at dusk, after playing football for hours, and listened to ghost stories. I would have lain awake in bed that night, desperately trying not to say (or rather, think) the Lord's Prayer backwards, thus summoning the Devil.

I would have been to a single baseball game, and come away entranced, with the song echoing in my head: "Take me out to the ball game, take me out to the crowd..."

I would have watched bats flitter through the twilight in Limerick, and watched lightning-bugs glow in Virginia.

I would have worn: sideburns, a Marseillies soccer jersey, silky tracksuits, fingerless gloves, massive square-framed glasses, a pink wrist-watch, denim corduroys, a blue jumper with pictures of space invaders, and slacks and shirts and jumpers that made one girl tell me, "You dress like a seminarian".

I would have sat in an empty cinema watching a movie alone. I would have been to see the same movie five times-- for two different movies. I would have watched three movies in the cinema, in a row, on one day. And all this after having nervously bought a cinema ticket on my own, for the first time, in my early twenties.

I would have eaten five cream cakes in a row, walking around Dublin city centre in my college days, because I could afford all five for a pound.

I would have heard an old Jewish man recalling his memories of Krystallnacht, the night when SA troops and ordinary Germans smashed up hundreds of Jewish shops and businesses.

I would have prayed to God in Westminster Cathedral, in the café of a cinema, in a completely dark budget hotel room, at the top of Croagh Patrick.

I would have actually slipped on a banana peel, in Moore Street.

I would have stood in a dole queue, and sat in the first-class section of an airplane.

I would have lain awake in bed reading all night until morning, not once but several times, reading To Sir with Love, David Copperfield, The Ragged-Trousered Philantropists, and a Sexton Blake book.

I would have forgotten my own birthday at the age of fourteen, but never have lost a child's excitement about Christmas-- even when I half-wanted to, in my late teens.

I would have collected Batman cards, Transformers toys, the Tranformers comic, The Eagle comic, Carry On movies, Subbuteo teams and accessories, and unusual words.

I would have been on a picket once, rather reluctantly.

I would have drawn a map of a fantasy world on the back of a roll of wallpaper, as part of a plan to out-Tolkien Tolkien, before my voice had even broken.

I would have lain in bed crying, wishing Aslan was real.

I would have visited the National Museum with my class, and have been frightened because everything there was so old and belonged to the dead.

I would have heard kids in my French class excitedly discussing the odds of a white Christmas that year-- a white Christmas that never came to pass. But I would have lived to see a real, gleaming, perfect white Christmas, many years later.

I would sat in an Accident and Emergency department for twelve hours with my future wife, on her first visit to Ireland.

I would never have milked a cow, because my farmer uncle would never let me when I asked him.

I would have pompously told my father that "I renounce Shakespeare", some time in my teens, only to receive the withering response that I wasn't the first person to do that.

I would have been shown a rock with Satan's footprint on it.

I would have watched with awe as my older brother and my cousin played games like Back to Skool and War of the Worlds on my cousin's Spectrum computer.

I would have been caught in the middle of a riot.

I would have gone on my knees (plural) and proposed to a woman, and heard her say "Yes" through tears.

I would have written a love-note to a girl, and then chickened out of putting it in her school-bag.

I would have smelled freshly-mown grass, tasted greasy chips, seen the night sky glow orange with the reflection of street lamps, shivered with cold as I walked around the school-yard on a Winter morning, and lost all taste for red wine after I drank too much of it at a dinner party and almost threw up in the taxi.

I would have been in detention once, and struggled with scruples about promising the supervising teacher that he wouldn't see me again, since I didn't see how I could conscientously promise that.

I would have known neighbours knock on our door to ask if they could use our telephone, long years before every ten-year-old kid had his own mobile.

I would have been given a snow-man snow-globe, for Kriskindle, at a work Christmas party.

I would have played a computer game for sixteen hours straight, then gone out to walk the dog in the early hours, have been so light-headed that I felt I was walking on the moon, and resolved not to play any more computer games.

I would never have been in a wax museum, seen E.T., played spin-the-bottle, read Treasure Island, been in a helicopter, or had a headache.

I would have known what it was like to have no friends, and what it was like to have wonderful friends.

I would have seen every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, but never seen an episode of Cheers.

I would have received a Valentine's card-- for the first time, in my thirties.

I would have written poetry in a café in Wales, in Dublin airport, in Philadelphia airport, in a pub in Chester.

I would have sat down in an almost-deserted school hall, during one study period towards the end of the day, reading my history book as silence fell over the school, and suddenly realised that history had actually happened.

I would have been almost mugged, with a bottle waved in my face, until my would-be-mugger relented, when someone he knew shouted from a window to leave me alone.

I would have had one line to say in a school play, and forgotten it.

I would have got trapped behind a china cabinet, that was placed diagonally in a corner of the living room.

I would have heard children playing outside my window.

I would have seen what seemed like hundreds of crows filling the sky at dawn, out my bedroom window, when staying with my step-grandfather, in Croom.

I would have volunteered for a psychological study in Trinity College, which involved spitting into a glass dish.

I would have made shadow-puppets by candlelight, with my family, during a power-cut.

I would have lost my glasses in a water-slide.

I would have once written ten thousand words before breakfast.

I would have had debates about capitalism, poetry, euthanasia, gun control, the existence of God, Irish history, cinema, national traditions, immigration, superheroes, and dozens of other subjects.

I would have carried two bunches of roses, one white and one red, through the streets of Richmond, drawing thumbs-ups and cheers from a group of young guys, a deadpan comment that "you've got it covered" from a passing girl, and-- months later-- a mention from some acquaintances who had passed me in a car at the time.

I would have heard a ghost story about the Titanic, told in a school dressing room, that involved deep-sea divers seeing the words "Leave us in our watery grave" written on the hull, and walked home feeling a chill all around me.

I would have walked into a shop with clothes-pegs in my hair, as a child, just to top a story that my brother told me about a friend who had started eating a paper bag at the cash desk of a bookstore.

I would have missed my train on a visit to Sheffield, because I couldn't resist going back to the pub where I'd had dinner, to look one more time at the red-haired barmaid who'd served me. But she was gone.

If I were to die today, I'd be grateful.

But I'd rather live for many years to come.

Pictures or It Didn't Happen

Our wedding photos have finally started to reach us...a chance to show off my lovely bride on my blog!







Friday, September 13, 2013

Why I Love C.S. Lewis

Reading: A Pleasure or a Task?

"A man ought to read just as inclination leads him", said Samuel Johnson, "for what he reads as a task will do him little good".

I've been musing over this quotation for years, not sure whether I agree with or not. What does "inclination" mean anyway?

A man might feel an inclination to go on a ten-mile uphill hike. Four miles into the hike, he might feel an inclination to quit, while still feeling his initial inclination to go on the hike. In other words, the two inclinations clash. Surely this is not an uncommon scenario. We feel conflicted between pleasures perhaps as often as we feel conflicted between duties, or between a duty and a pleasure. (Another hour in bed, or catch the hotel breakfast buffet before it closes?)

I think that most of the reading I've done in my life has been done contrary to inclination, in the narrowest sense. I have persisted with many, many books out of a desire to see the thing through, or a feeling that I should know about the subject, or a hope that the pay-off would come later.

There are only a handful of writers who I have ever read with pure and unmitigated pleasure, and C.S. Lewis is one of them. This despite the fact that I think Lewis's writings have been much more beneficial to me than many authors I read with grim determination.

Of course, I am not alone in this passion for Lewis. He is one of those writers (like G.K. Chesterton) who have fans rather than readers. People read him, not just for amusement or self-improvement, but because he expresses their deepest feelings and convictions, and because the atmosphere of his books is so congenial to them.

They read him, too, because he gives them arguments to defend the things they believe in, or arguments in favour of things they wish to believe in. I'm not just talking about Christianity, though his defence of Christianity is obviously crucial to his appeal. Like Chesterton, he defends a whole way of looking at the world that has been somewhat out of favour since the mid-twentieth century at least (though no doubt it is a historical latecomer itself).

It is a view of the world, or perhaps a sensibility, that is romantic, respectful of tradition, anti-elitist, hearty, shuns crudity and indecency, and is distrustful of flashiness and novelty. Admirers of Chesterton and Lewis would describe such a view of the world as "common sense", or "sanity"; though of course, to describe it as such is begging the question.

I don't think it would be fair to assume, though, that people return to Lewis just because they agree with him, or because he parrots their prejudices. Anybody could do that. There are plenty of Christian writers out there, but readers don't read and re-read their books with the same avidity they show towards those of Lewis.

So why do we keep revisiting this guy?

First of all, he was a fine writer. The fact that his readers are not drawn to him out of pure disinterested love of good prose doesn't mean that the good prose isn't a big factor.

Perhaps his most important strength as a prose stylist was his sheer clarity. He once compared a writer to a farmer leading sheep along a country path, having to make sure that there are no gates open to left or right that the sheep might wander through. Hardly flattering to the reader, perhaps-- but I wish more writers were so condescending. (Interestingly, Lewis once lamented the modern tendency to use the word "condescending" in an exclusively pejorative way).

From Narnia to Now


I am a twice-born fan of Lewis. In my teens, I was a keen admirer of his Narnia books, though I remember being very distressed when I came to The Last Battle, with its rather startling and uncompromising plot twists.

I don't remember very much about why I loved Narnia. I can remember very little of the stories themselves. When I started re-reading them, very recently, they were more or less new to me. Sad to say, I also found them rather dull, and gave up on the third book.

It's hard to tell for sure, since I am not one of those adults with the gift of recalling their childhood vividly, but I think my grown-up enjoyment of Lewis is much keener than my childhood enjoyment of Narnia.

It might be expected that I discovered Lewis's non-fiction writings when I began to practice my faith, or in the time of searching that so often precedes a conversion. But such is not the case. I wasn't thinking about Christianity at all when I developed an adult enthusiasm for Lewis. It was his critical and philosophical works that drew me in. The Abolition of Man was recommended to my philosophy class by a lecturer (a Catholic priest, incidentally). The rigour of the book's thinking impressed me, though it is not one of my favourites.

But it was a collection of his critical essays that really won me over. Specifically, it was the essay "High and Low Brows". In this piece, Lewis questions the validity of the whole distinction between "serious" literature and mere entertainment. But he does so in a way that is not tub-thumpingly populist or anti-intellectual; one that recognizes that there is indeed a distinction between reading a book for diversion and reading a book in a more meaningful way. I liked Lewis's solution; that it was different kinds of reading, not different kind of book, that mattered. A reader who returns to the same hardboiled detective novel time and again, savouring its atmosphere and its dialogue afresh each time, is reading in a "literary" way-- the poseur who forces himself to get through Finnegans Wake, suffering all the way, is not. This struck me as being something I'd always thought, without being able to articulate it even in my own mind.

The other essays in the book were equally eye-opening. An essay on psycho-analysis in literary criticism demolished the idea that literature was mere wish-fulfilment, or an expression of repressed sexual urges. I admired how Lewis achieved this; patiently, calmly, without any sneering or guffawing. The civility of his tone, and the readiness to take his opponents' views seriously, is a great part of the appeal of his writings.

How often do you find a Christian writing something like this (a made-up example):

In our day, the whole notion of "sin" has become unmentionable, almost an embarrassment. The scientific method is taken to be the only route by which we can arrive at knowledge; intuitions which mankind have cherished for generations are laughed to scorn. The narrative in which our time is framed is the continual triumph of evidence-based thinking over faith and "superstition". Only that which we can measure, manipulate, use is accorded any importance. We have become very good at asking the question "How?", and forgotten the question, "Why?"-- or refused to accept that there is such a question.

What is this kind of rhetoric apart from reverse sarcasm (after the model of "reverse racism")? Simply summarising a set of beliefs or assumptions in an antagonistic tone is not to argue against them, or even to begin to argue against them. Wallowing in the fact that secularists sneer at Christianity (or wallowing in the fact that any particular philosophy is unfashionable or subject to hostility) is not to defend it. Just as left-wing people believe that they have disposed of some theory when they label it "reactionary", those of a more conservative bent often seem to think that shouting "political correctness!" is a winning argument. Of course, it's not an argument at all.

Lewis doesn't do that. The gentlemanly tone of his works is a welcome tonic, after the shrillness of so many other controversialists. Perhaps the best example of this is the address he made to a Pacifist Society during World War Two. In hindsight, it seems probable that the pacifists were right and Lewis was wrong, but that doesn't take away from the courteousness of his address. "I do not intend", he said, "to join in any of the jibes to which those of your persuasion are exposed in the popular press. Let me say at the outset that I think it unlikely there is anyone present less courageous than myself." This is the tone of most of his controversial writings (I mean "controversial" in the sense of "entering into a controversy", rather than "acrimonious").

That last quotation displays another characteristic that, I believe, endears Lewis to his dedicated readers; his modesty. Modesty, like chastity, is a virtue that it is easy to make a case against-- it seems to sail close to lying, or even hypocrisy, when it's a matter of making light of your own accomplishments. But we can't help feeling the charm of modesty when we do meet it. It is like walking on springy turf or breathing crisp, clean air. I think it is one of the distinctively Christian virtues, though not at all exclusive to Christians.

Joy

But there is more to Lewis's appeal even than that.

Perhaps the heart of Lewis's enchantment is that nobody has written so eloquently or so articulately about what he called Joy.

The famous words from his sermon, The Weight of Glory, are almost painfully exciting: "“In speaking of this...I feel a certain shyness. I am almost committing an indecency. I am trying to rip open the inconsolable secret in each one of you—- the secret which hurts so much that you take your revenge on it by calling it names like Nostalgia and Romanticism and Adolescence; the secret also which pierces with such sweetness that when, in very intimate conversation, the mention of it becomes imminent, we grow awkward and affect to laugh at ourselves; the secret we cannot hide and cannot tell, though we desire to do both...

...That unnameable something, desire for which pierces us like a rapier at the smell of bonfire, the sound of wild ducks flying overhead, the title of The Well at the World's End, the opening lines of "Kubla Khan", the morning cobwebs in late summer, or the noise of falling waves."

This is it, isn't it? This is at the heart, not only of Lewis's appeal, but (I dare to say) of the mystery of all our lives. I can speak for myself and say that this is what I am always chasing, the will-o'-the-wisp that draws me on.

I sometimes think that the strongest argument for God, with most religious believers, is this inescapable sense of something more-- this sense of being haunted by an indescribable ecstasy, one that we can only glimpse from afar-off and for the briefest of moments, but of which we are never entirely oblivious. Life, we feel, is about something.

The English columnist Peter Hitchens, an Anglican, often quotes a line from Philip Larkin in trying to express this feeling: "The trees are coming into leaf, like something almost being said." Larkin was a dyed-in-the-wool atheist, but I think Hitchens is quite right to quote these lines as an evocation of religious feelings. How many of us believe in God mostly because of this very feeling-- that when we look at the world around us, we get an undeniable sense of "something almost being said"?

And nobody wrote as much or as penetratingly about this sensation-- perhaps I might risk saying, this awareness-- as C.S. Lewis. Despite my loss of interest in the Narnia books, it's easy to understand why that image of Lucy pushing through the fur coats in the wardrobe and emerging into the snow of a magical world is so potent, and so unforgettable.

Farmer Lewis

But let us turn for a moment from the most lyrical parts of that passage, to the one that might be easily passed over-- "I feel a certain shyness...I am almost committing an indecency...we grow awkward and affect to laugh". Strange as it might seem, I think this shyness, this awkwardness, is also a big part of Lewis's appeal.

We love C.S. Lewis because he is a romantic, but not a cissy. The man who wrote the impossibly haunting passage above was not a mincing aesthete but a loud, bluff, avuncular, hearty fellow who was described, again and again, as looking like a farmer. We cannot read his books without thinking of the pipe, the booming laugh, the shabby furniture in his rooms, the pots of beer in the Eagle and Child pub, the long country walks, the mischievous sense of humour.

One might argue that all of this was somewhat affected in itself-- and indeed, some of it was. But it was affected in the right direction. I don't at all blame Lewis for distancing himself as much as possible from the world of pale poets and studiously refined men of letters. He showed that a man could be otherworldly without being effeminate or snobbish-- an example that shouldn't be needed, perhaps, but which various accidents of history and culture have rendered necessary.

I think Lewis himself would probably have lamented that something of a cult of personality has grown around him. Nobody was more insistent upon the need for self-forgetfulness, on "getting oneself out of the way", whether in literary appreciation or in the Christian life. Nobody laid more stress on attending to the theme of a writer rather than the writer's own biography or personality. When he described his much-loved tutor, W.T. Kirkpatrick, in his spiritual memoir Surprised by Joy, he paid him a typical compliment when he said: "Here was a man who thought not about you but about what you said."

But, really, Lewis has nobody but himself to blame for this cult. He poured his personality into his works. He regularly used anecdotes and examples from his own life. As soon as he converted to Christianity, he made a start upon writing his spiritual autobiography; its first draft was an allegory, Pilgrim's Regress, but its final fruit was his masterpiece, Surprised by Joy, which is a truly intimate self-portrait.

My second-favourite of his works, Miracles, begins: "I have known only one person in my life who claimed to have seen a ghost." The personal note is typical.

As well as this, there is a chumminess about his prose style which inevitably makes us feel a certain personal connection to him. George Orwell (who could never really warm to any Christian who took the supernatural seriously) had this to say about Lewis's prose style, in his review of the book Beyond Personality:

One must make some allowance for the fact that these essays are reprinted broadcasts, but even on the air it is not really necessary to insult your hearers with homely little asides like "you know" and "mind you", or Edwardian slang like "awfully", "jolly well", "specially" for "especially", "awful cheek", and so forth. The idea, of course, is to persuade the suspicious reader, or listener, that one can be a Christian and a "jolly good chap" at the same time.


Of course, Lewis's style was not always so colloquial, but it was never impersonal, even in his critical writings. You cannot read his books without feeling that he is speaking to you. I feel that this was part of his art, and therefore that the distinction between the writer and his writing cannot, in his case, be a stark one, whatever he might have argued himself.

My Favourite C.S. Lewis Books

I have found myself, in this article, writing many hundreds of words on the appeal of C.S. Lewis, while hardly mentioning any of his works by title. This is not such a fault as it might be, since I am mostly writing for those who are already familiar with the great man's work. (I know how hopelessly inadequate this article would be as an introduction to Lewis.) But fans are always eager to compare notes, and I should therefore make some brief and belated mention of which Lewis books I prize the most.

I have no hesitation in naming my overall favourite. I think Surprised by Joy is Lewis's masterpiece, both as a work of apologetics and a work of art. Miracles would come next. Undeceptions: Essays on Theology and Ethics is a collection that helped me a lot as I made my way towards Christian belief, and one I always read with pleasure. Out of the Silent Planet is the only work of Lewis's fiction that I really enjoy, as it never really gets boring. (For all their brilliance, I am not enamoured of The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, Pilgrim's Regress or any of his other "theological fiction"-- I find the fictional device tiresome in every case, and wish they had been written as essays instead. As for Perelandra and That Hideous Strength, I found them both excessively ponderous. I have not read any of his other adult novels.) I think Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer is an underappreciated work, while The Four Loves and A Grief Observed are rather overpraised. For some reason, I have avoided reading The Problem of Pain. I think all the ideas in Mere Christianity are developed to greater effect elsewhere.

I love almost all of his essays. I would give special mention to "High and Lows Brows", "Hamlet: the Prince or the Poem?", "Psycho-analysis and Literary Criticism", "Two Ways with the Self", "The Weight of Glory", "Priestesses in the Church", "Meditation in a Toolshed" (great title, that), "The Decline of Religion", "The Sermon and the Lunch", "What Christmas Means to Me", "Membership", "The Efficacy of Prayer", "Myth become Fact", "Will we Lose God in Outer Space?", "On Stories", and "On Obstinacy in Belief".

When it comes to his weightier scholarly works, I recently read my way through all of English Literature in the Sixteenth Century. Parts of it are tough going, especially when he is (with obvious reluctance) working his way through lists of very forgettable period writers. But when he warms to his subject, it is first-rate stuff. A Preface to Paradise Lost is insightful all the way through, and the chapter on Satan is one of the most profound meditations on evil that I have ever read. (Who can forget the line: "What we see in Satan is the horrible co-existence of a subtle and incessant intellectual activity with an incapacity to understand anything"? Or, "In the midst of a world of light and love, of song and feast and dance...[he] could find nothing to think of more interesting than his own prestige"?) I never finished The Discarded Image, but I can't remember why I put it down, as I do remember enjoying it. Spenser's Images of Life is more a collection of lecture notes than a book, but it has some very powerful passages. As with all of Lewis's literary criticism, it is far more than a mere meditation upon a particular text. An Experiment in Criticism, I feel, is an unnecessary elaboration of High and Low Brows, and in this work I do feel that Lewis errs in the direction of intellectual snobbery.

By now I have probably enraged all the Lewisians who may have been pleased with me until I started critiquing individual works. But then, aren't the most heated disagreements between those who are fundamentally of the same mind? Civil wars are notoriously bitter, as are family feuds.

All I can do is beg forgiveness for my taste, doubtless flawed and ill-educated, and ask any Lewis admirers who have been offended by my dismissal of their favourite book to remember that, after all, we are close enough to being kindred spirits.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

First Name Terms

I don't usually blog about soccer or sport, but I was reading about the resignation of Giovanni Trapattoni as manager of the Irish soccer team just now and something about the statement from the Football Association of Ireland struck me as interesting.

This was the passage that struck me:

“This particular World Cup campaign has been disappointing, but Giovanni leaves us with a group of good young players which should form the basis of the squad that the new manager will use for the European Championships in France 2016 when 24 teams qualify.”

Now, why should they use Giovanni there? I would think that a man in his seventies, who has achieved a huge amount of success in the field of football management, deserves a respectful "Mr" in such a context, rather than to have his Christian name bandied about in a formal press release.

Of course, some people see the use of titles as stuffy and stiff, and believe that using a person's first name is much more friendly. I don't agree with this. I agree with Chesterton instead, who wished that the spirit of democracy and fraternity had brought about universal civility rather than the universal incivility of everybody using everybody else's given name so presumptiously. (Or something like that. I can't find the quotation online.)

I liked Trapattoni. Partly because he seemed like a very dignified man, but also (I have to admit) because he is a daily Mass-goer. I sometimes wonder if the latter fact is part of the reason the Irish sports media hated him so much, and blamed him so unreasonably for not turning sow's ears into silk purses.

Forty Years Ago

NOTE: This is a poem I wrote a few years ago, when I was wallowing in a rather unfocused and inchoate conservatism, living in lodgings, listening to Sgt. Pepper over and over through headphones, reading Philip Larkin and George Orwell, suffering an unrequited attachment, eating granola bars for supper, etc. etc. Even then it didn't really represent my settled or unsettled views. But it's told from the point of view of a fictional character so that's OK.

I like to throw a bit of poetry onto the blog now and again, since I think poetry is important and neglected. If it bothers you that I publish my own poetry here, please make a complaint in writing to The Manager, Tesco, Dooradoyle, Limerick, Ireland. See if he cares.

Behind closed curtains, forty years ago
Fills up the screen in black and white.
How strange it must have been (he thinks) to grow
Up in the craters the Luftwaffe made;
To be a baby of the Blitz. But night
Has fallen now on history’s parade.

He watches mini-skirted women jive,
The pale young hero cursing TV sets
And package holidays. To be alive
When time was like the weather! When the news
Was like a story! Now nobody gets
Excited about class, no one has views

About the Common Market, no one talks
About how things were different in my day;
That’s gone the way of Cromwell and Guy Fawkes.
Time is an air-conditioned office now
And history an infinite replay.
There’s nothing that the world will not allow;

No rationing; no walking half a mile
To hear a radio, no being called
To spend two year in khaki; no big trial
For dirty books; at last nobody cares.
Curse on the telly, no one is appalled.
Puncture your face with studs and no one stares.

Nostalgic for small-mindedness, he feeds
On scenes of pits and queues and kitchen sinks
And every day the whole mirage recedes;
The guy who played the miner’s son just died
And she’s a Dame, that mini-skirted minx.
In this last room where history can hide
He owns a world of ghosts, self-mummified.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Sex Sandwich Fair 2013

That was a search term that found my blog today.

The mind boggles.

More from Fr. Tony Flannery

An extract from his new book is published in today's Irish Times. It will be launched in the Royal Hibernian Academy on Thursday. RTE presenter Bill O'Herlihy will preside.

In the extract, Fr. Flannery admits that he struggles to know whether he should continue in religious life.

I was rather struck by this passage:

Even while attending Mass, as I do regularly, I sit there listening to the priest struggle with the new translation of the Missal, specially with the opening prayers and prefaces, and I know that whoever was behind this new translation was not motivated by desire to make the Eucharist more meaningful for the people, but instead was driven by a rigid ideological stance that had little or nothing to do with the teachings of the Gospel.


Fr. Flannery knows that "whoever was behind this new translation was not motivated by desire to make the Eucharist more meaningful for the people". He doesn't speculate, he knows. That seems like an unwarranted inductive leap to me-- to say the least. One wonders how Our Lord's words about judging others apply here.

Why should more meaningful mean easier, anyway? And surely all priests (and most congregations) should have come to terms with the new translation of the Missal by now. Is saying, "It is right and just" rather "it is right to give him thanks and praise" really such a massive leap? How is "Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof" less meaningful than "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you"? It seems not only more deeply rooted in Scripture to me, but much more poetic.

I don't really understand the attitude of the Association of Catholic Priests and their supporters. They are all in favour of reform, but when there is a reform, they don't like it.

I'm not having a poke at Fr. Flannery. This passage, for instance, is rather moving:

In the meantime I have some major decisions to make. I will have to decide if I wish to stay in religious life for what time is remaining to me, while not being allowed to do any form of ministry. I do not know what effect that would have on me long term, but it may be difficult. The alternative would be to move out on my own and try to make a life for myself, but this is, quite frankly, frightening. Would I be able to cope, after living almost my whole life in an institutional setting? Who would look after me in my old age? Would I be very lonely? What about the financial side of it all? These are the real and hard questions that are occupying my mind at this time.

I wish him well, and I hope that his fears are not justified.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Regarding Titles

It's regularly remarked that movie trailers are often better than the movies they promote. Personally, I feel that a trip to the cinema is almost wasted if I don't arrive in time for the trailers. The cynical explantion of this phenomenon is that all the best moments in the movie are shoe-horned into the trailer and the rest of the running time is just filler, more or less. This might sometimes be the case, but I think there is a more interesting explanation. I think the very format of trailers gives them an appeal that movies can't have, since a two-hour long trailer would be unbearable.

Typically, what a movie trailer seeks to convey is a sense of excitement, since it is trying to get you excited about seeing the movie itself. This it achieves by various devices: a rapid succession of scenes, images of people and things in motion (ironically, often in slow motion, which simply makes it more dramatic), brief and often intriguing snatches of dialogue, unusual camera angles and lighting, and in general by a kind of exaggeration of ordinary cinematic techniques. What you are left with is a sense of compression, of concentration, which it is impossible for a full-length film to achieve, by its very nature.

I think this fact about trailers also applies to a rather similar art-form-- that is, the art of the title. By "title", I mean the titles of movies, books, stage-plays, music albums, paintings, computer games, and so forth. But mostly I am thinking of the titles of books and movies. (I took movie trailers as my point of departure, because I thought my remarks would make more sense that way.)

I think the titles of books and movies, just like trailers, often have an appeal quite distinct from, and sometimes superior to, the works that they "promote".

In his much-underpraised Autobiography, G.K. Chesterton asserts that every wilderness looks bigger when seen through a window. Our own Patrick Kavanagh, in a phrase that is well-known in Ireland because it comes in a poem featured on the English syllabus, said that "through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder". I think both of these claims are very true. And I think that good titles, just like good trailers, are windows through which the landscape outside looks bigger, narrow chinks which let in floods of wonder.

But-- and this is an important point, and one which motivates me to write on this subject-- good titles don't just excite us about the books and films that they label. Good titles excite us about life itself, and do so in a manner different from anything else in the world. At least, I have always found that powerful titles have this effect on me, and I suspect that they have it on other people, as well. I have often found that, at times when I feel dull or uninspired, or when the world itself seems dreary to me, some evocative title will come to my mind and give me a new zest for existence.

I will have to start giving examples, won't I?

Well, this being a Catholic blog, I think I will be unpredictable and choose (perhaps) the most unlikely of titles out of the hundreds that suggest themselves. I work in a university library, and we hold copies of the academic theses submitted to the various departments of the university. One of these theses caught my eye, because I liked the title so much. (Quite a few have snappy titles, actually.) This one concerned the experience of gay teachers in Ireland, and it bears the magnificent title Echoes Down the Corridor.

Now, I don't know about you, but that title makes me shiver with pleasure. I think it almost defies analysis, but here goes, anyway.

First of all, it is dramatic. It not only takes a moment from the flux of everyday life, but it takes a particular evanescent and fleeting moment. The moment it evokes is almost ghostly. And something inside of us thrills to words like echo, whisper, shadow, phantom, ghost, silhouette, rumour-- words whose very vagueness or faintness makes them, paradoxically, all the more vivid.

(Incidentally, I should admit that the word "corridor" is a word that I find very exciting. After all, a corridor is an exciting place. Anybody could walk down it at any moment. It seems to invite whispered conferences, chance meetings, glimpsed figures turning a corner. If you think this is a far-fetched idea, ask yourself why "the corridors of power" is a much more powerful phrase than "the halls of power" or "the chambers of power".)

Now, imagine if the writer of Echoes Down the Corridor had chosen a more prosaic title instead. Imagine if he had used his sub-title, An Examination of the Lives of Gay Teachers in Ireland, as the main title. In that case, wouldn't his work seem strangely diminished in importance? It would seem business-like, dutiful. But the lyricism of Echoes Down the Corridor seems to raise the whole thing to a higher level, to lend it a larger significance.

And this, I think, is true of all acts of naming, and of bequeathing a title. Adam in giving names to all the animals, we dimly feel, somehow shares in God's creative power. Giving a name to a child is an act of immeasurable significance and poignancy. Parents who choose to give names to their babies when those babies don't survive birth are making a very touching declaration of love. Giving a name to a season of a particular year-- The Summer of Love, the Winter of Discontent-- gives them an air of heightened importance, and even (I would claim) a heightened reality. In the famous line from Shakespeare, the poet is said to "give to airy nothing a local habitation and a name."

Naming does not only identify. It creates. It exalts.

Here are some of my own favourite titles. Many of them are titles of books I've never read and films I've never seen. Sometimes I've hated the book or the film but loved the title.

Porterhouse Blue, by Tom Sharpe. (A great book that I only read because I was attracted by the title. The book itself is a bawdy farce, and an excellent one, but a million miles away from the contemplative novel of ideas that the title seemed to suggest.)

Ice Cold in Alex. Cider with Rosie. Goodbye to All That. A Dry, White Season

No Tigers in Africa! (a memoir by a producer of a famous Irish TV documentary series, which often went to Africa for its stories.)

Like a Tree Planted (a biography of an Irish priest). Snow Falling on Cedars. The Growing Summer by Noel Streatfeild. A Girl in Winter by Philip Larkin. Take a Girl Like You by Kingsley Amis.

The Jungle is Neutral by Freddie Spencer Chapman. Sex, Lies and Videotape. The Wonder Years. The Breakfast Club.

On Golden Pond. The Philosopher on Dover Beach by Roger Scruton. All the Way to Bantry Bay by Benedict Kiely (a travel book on our shelves at home.) Postcards from the Edge. Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean.

My Dream of You by Nuala O'Faolain. Who Will Love Polly Odlum? (a chick-lit book I saw a colleague reading once). Not Without My Daughter. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

The Road to Wigan Pier. Stay Me with Flagons (a book about wine; the title is drawn from The Song of Songs). Never Say Never Again. A Man for All Seasons. A Prayer for Owen Meaney. Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. Love and the Russian Winter (a Simply Red album).

Writing out that list (and it could be expanded indefinitely), it occurs to me that there are several things that can make a title stick in your mind.

First of all, and perhaps most fundamentally, a title is rarely appealing if it is not memorable-- which usually means that it should avoid the obvious. Books or movies that take their title from the main character of the story, or describe the subject matter in some very straightforward way, are unlikely to give any special pleasure. Indeed, I've often thought what a wasted opportunity it is, not to give a book or movie some more imaginative title. (Of course, titles that seems straightforward may be subtly ironic or significant-- for instance, Orwell's dystopian novel 1984 seems to have a very mundane title until you read the book and realise that it may not be set in 1984 at all-- that the Party have twisted truth so much that nobody really knows what year it is for sure. But you don't know this until you read the book, so it is not intrinsic to the title.)

Hitting upon a memorable and poetic title, however, is not as simple as coming up with something outlandish. There is a danger of going too far, a danger of falling flat on your face and choosing a title that seems irritating or smug rather than evocative. Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmie Dean, Jimmie Dean comes periously close to doing this-- but it has just enough poignancy to save it. But titles like The Possibility of an Island, The Sun Also Rises, The Englishman Who Went up a Hill and Came Down a Mountain, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind do (I think) fall into this pit.

(Sometimes a title is so audacious it gets away with it-- for instance, Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why is He Saying These Terrible Things About Me?, a 1971 Oscar-nominated film starring Dustin Hoffmann.)

I think a good title often tends to use simple and vivid imagery. A Dry White Season is such a vivid description, and so devoid of explanation, that it satisfies the part of our mind that enjoys haikus or still-life painting. The same is true of Snow Falling on Cedars.

A title is often good because it is rather mysterious-- though there is a big difference between mystery and obscurity. The Postman Always Rings Twice is mysterious, but we feel that it means something and we are intrigued. A title like Blood Simple or No Present Like Time is simply annoying-- we don't know what it means, and we don't care. The difference, I think, lies in the poetry of the first title and the lack of poetry in the other two. In the same way, if we saw a woman with a mysterious medallion hanging around her neck, we would be deliciously intrigued-- but a code made of random words and letters on a cardboard box would leave us cold.

Soem titles are powerful because they are poignant. Goodbye to All That is one such-- in fact, I think that any title that begins with "Goodybe" or Farewell" is automatically poignant. Tuesdays with Morrie is a poignant title, as is Life with Father or Cider with Rosie.

Titles that address somebody or contain an imperative are also evocative-- Take a Girl Like You, Throw Momma from the Train, Cathy Come Home, Save Me the Waltz.

I think that this subject is a very important one, obscure and trivial as it may seem. In fact, it is a subject so important to me personally that I struggle to find words adequate for it. And, though I am not simply using book and movie titles as a point of entry, the subject is really much, much bigger than those.

So much for titles.

My deeper subject-- my deeper theme-- is one that can only be approached indirectly, as I have done here. I don't approach it indirectly out of craftiness, or reverence, or subtlety. I do so because of its very nature it can only be thus approached. I am not ultimately talking about movie titles or books titles per se. I'm talking about the kind of poetry, the kind of beauty, that you find specifically in such titles-- but that has analogues elsewhere.

It is similar to the beauty of imagined pictures in a flickering fire, or the spirit that we hear in a street vendor's cry-- "Get your apples and oranges!". It is similar mental sensation that we so often try to describe by saying "it was like trying to remember some half-forgotten song".

It is seen in horizons. It is heard in myths, and legends, and skippping chants, and in nursery rhymes and ghost stories.

It is the feeling that makes every child, at some time or other, day-dream about the world behind the mirror, or the upside-down landscape that they see past their reflection in a puddle.

It occupies the margin between dreams and waking life.

It lives in a snow-globe, in an old wooden street-sign, in a music box. It haunts empty theatres and deserted cinemas. It's heard in music that is softly playing in the background of a restaurant or a shopping centre, music that seems overheard rather than heard.

It is the reason nobody ever forgets Plato's Allegory of the Cave once they've encountered it.

It is a beauty, perhaps even an ecstasy, so fugitive that it cannot be glimpsed except for the briefest of moments, and even then, not directly. It is never on the surface, never in focus, never to be found in our ordinary stream of time and place-- though it may be seen, or half-seen, in the slow rhythm of decades and centuries, or in the twinkling time-outside-time of sunlight glinting on the ripples of a river on a summer's morning.

Perhaps it has never been expressed more perfectly than in the words of St. Paul: "We see now through a glass, darkly."

Friday, September 6, 2013

A Query

I've asked this before, but here goes again...do any readers know of any churches in the Dublin area that are open outside Mass times? I am more interested in suburban churches than city centre churches. I am especially interested in chapels and oratories. (I know "phone ahead" is a good idea, but not for me as I hate using the phone and will avoid using it as far as I possibly can.)

High Church and Low Church

I would love to visit these two places of worship...

The Southermost place of worship in the world (according to Wikipedia, which never lies-- but this seems contradicted in other places on the web) is the Catholic chapel on the Belgrano II Base, owned by Argentina. It's made out of ice!

And the Northernmost place of worship is Svalbard Church, affiliated to the Church of Norway, but serving all religions.

I will never see either of them but it gives me a pleasure to think that they're there. The very idea that you are at the "Ultima Thule" is exciting to the imagination. I also can't help but thinking that the inhospitable environment would make a sacred place, which always feels the most welcoming of environments to me, even more welcoming by contrast.

But it's more than that. There is a perennial fascination with far-off, ill-populated, isolated places where (we imagine) everybody knows everybody, protocol can be relaxed, the details of everyday life become magnified in importance, and the (quite stressful) embarrassment of choices that we have in metropolitan and suburban life is diminished. This might be a romantic idea, and it might not be accurate. But I think it's part of why the thought of a little church in a tiny, snow-covered, far-from-anything settlement is so pleasing.

For this reason, I never understand why improved transport and communications are treated as such an unmixed blessing.

(It's also part of the appeal of Anthony Trollope, who I mention because I'm reading him at the moment. It's the provincialism of his stories that is so satisfying. Apparently, I am not the only reader who feels that The Last Chronicle of Barset-- often considered his best book, and his own favourite-- always become duller when the scene shifts from Barchestershire, with its little feuds to gossips and routines, to London, with its fashionable cynicism and foppery and high life.)

Thursday, September 5, 2013

A Communiqué from the Committee for the Defence of the English Language

Ladies and Gentlemen, Fellow Citizens, Children and Dogs and Cats--

We would like to announce that, as of midnight tonight, the battle to preserve the word "fulsome" in its stricter sense is to be given up. From that time, it will be possible to lavish as much fulsome praise as you like upon anybody or anything you wish, without being suspected of insincerity or excess. We would like to thank everybody who fought so heroically in this battle, but we have come to the conclusion that further resistance is futile. A twenty-one-gun salute will be fired at a midnight ceremony, a tribute which will not be fulsome at 11:59, but will indeed be fulsome a minute later.

We also formally acknowledge defeat in the struggle to preserve "enormity" as a word meaning "an outrage". There had been no active fighting on this front for some considerable time.

We are, however, resolved to fight until the bitter end in defence of the word "disinterested". We declare that any claim that one's father is disinterested in music, or that an employee was given the sack because she was completely disinterested, will be met with the utmost resistance. This battle must not be lost. Unlike "fulsome" and "enormity"-- words whose lost meanings can be expressed by other words-- there is no real synonym for "disinterested". If it falls, our whole world will be a smaller place, and who knows what distinctions will be next to crumble? Believe us, our defence of this beleagured adjective is anything but disinterested.

Issued on the fifth day of September in the year of Our Lord 2013 by the Committee for the Defence of the English Language.

Fewer Politicians?

I never thought I would agree with a member of The Green Party. But today I do. Eamon Ryan, in today's Irish Times, complains about Fine Gael's campaign posters that urge a "Yes" vote in the referendum to abolish the Seanad. One of the benefits the posters promise is "fewer politians".

Mr. Ryan says: "What populist illness has overcome Fine Gael and Labour whereby the only campaign argument they can muster is that politics is in itself a bad thing? Their only line is that having 30 per cent fewer politicians is by definition good. Where does that argument end? Should we all just bow out and let the Civil Service, judiciary or media take control? Having abolished a whole layer of local democracy and having centralised Government decision-making in a subcommittee of four, they now want rid of the Seanad. I am afraid I don’t trust them with yet more power. I think we should take some back and give the people the power to elect the Seanad."

I think many Irish people would agree that, if they want something done, contacting their local TD or councillor is probably a much better approach than actually trying to deal with the bureacracy of the civil service.

But, even aside from that, this "fewer politicians" business really bothers me. Presumably every minister, TD and councillor in Fine Gael wanted to become a politician-- they weren't press-ganged into it. It was their ambition, perhaps their burning ambition. Now they want to shut the door to other people who want to get into politics-- or, at least, to narrow it. It seems mean-spirited.

Although there are some industries I don't have much tenderness for-- bookmakers, for instance-- I don't understand why anyone would want there to be fewer career options out there. Such a person may claim that Senators, and other professions who are paid from the public purse, are being paid out of our pockets, and that if we didn't have such a burden of public spending, then we would spend our money on other things and that would create more jobs and thus more career choices. This seems suspiciously simplistic to me. I think there are many jobs and careers that simply wouldn't be there at all if it was left to the play of market forces. We might have any amount of computer programmers and management consultants, but next to no museum curators or philosophy lecturers. So even if the only thing the Senate achieved was to employ a few dozen politicians I would be all in favour of retaining it for that reason.

(Reading Anthony Trollope's Barchester novels makes me think the same thing about religion. Of course, I am a Catholic and I believe Catholicism to be true. But I can't help thinking that, if I was an atheist or an agnostic, I would think that having an established church, religious services and a clerical class was a good in itself, well worth the money put into the collection on Sundays, or the support of an occasional raffle. Organized religion fulfils a social role that nothing else can really fill. A society without seems curiously denuded. Clergy are nearly always a cultured and serious-minded class of people. If the same people had to become solicitors or company directors or engineers, they would inevitably become, in general, narrower-minded and duller people.)

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

D'you Remember Her Collecting For Concern on Christmas Eve?

I've just been ironing clothes while playing music on my laptop. Some readers will recognize the title of my post as a line from "I Useta Love Her", a 1990 hit single by the Irish band The Saw Doctors. (As far as I know, it is still the song that has spent the longest time at number one in the Irish music charts.)

The full verse is:

D’you remember her collecting for Concern on Christmas Eve?
She was on a forty-eight hour fast, just water and black tea.
So I walked right up and made an ostentatious contribution
And I winked at her to tell her I’d seduce her in the future
When she’s feelin looser.


(Concern is an Irish charity, which collects for the Third World.)

I suppose I'm a fan of the Saw Doctors. At least, I have three of their albums, listen to them fairly regularly, and I went to see them near Salthill in Galway, one Hallowe'en night. (I always smile when I remember the words of their guitarist as they emerged for an encore, after the audience had been baying for one for some ten minutes: "Sure, why wouldn't we?". The whole down-to-earth attitude and aesthetic of the band seemed compressed in those few words, and the way he spoke them.)

"I Useta Love Her" is a wonderfully fresh song, laden with nostalgia and rather innocent naughtiness. (Though one line, unfortunately, is downright sacrilegious towards the Blessed Eucharist, and there are jibes at Catholicism throughout, though jibes of a rather mild variety.)

But what always strikes me, when I listen to it, is how perfect that line I've quoted in the title is, lyrically speaking. It flows so effortlessly, with such joyous euphony-- and it fits perfectly into the rhythm of the song, too. A line like that is a thing to be cherished, whether it is encountered in classical poetry or in a modern pop lyric.

(A strangely similar example that strikes me, but from a more literary source, is one from Lord Alfred Tennyson's Locksley Hall:

And she turn'd—her bosom shaken with a sudden storm of sighs—
All the spirit deeply dawning in the dark of hazel eyes—
)

I seem to remember us singing "I Useta Love Her" in choir practice in my Catholic school, though I don't remember us singing the sacrilegious line (which is also rather too bawdy for fourteen year olds, which we were).

How do poetically perfect lines like that come to appear in pop songs? Is it just a fluke, or is there some ineradicable instinct for poetry in the human heart, which survives even into our essentially anti-poetic era, and pops up in the most unlikely places?

The Way, Way Back (Again)

I went to see The Way, Way Back again this evening, two days after seeing it for the first time. I saw it in the Screen cinema, which I somehow contrived to never have visited before, despite being a very ardent cinema-goer, and despite the Screen being one of the very few city centre cinemas in Dublin.

I simply cannot recommend The Way, Way Back strongly enough. I have seen four hundred and forty-one films in the cinema (I know exactly how many since I record them, in an unabashedly anorak way, on a spreadsheet), and I've seen at least that many again on DVD, video and television. And I have no doubt that The Way, Way Back is in the top twenty of all the films I've ever seen, and may even be in the top ten. It really is that good.

There isn't a dull scene in this movie-- there's hardly a dull moment. The word that keeps coming to mind when I think of it is "perfect". Not that the whole movie is perfect (there's no such thing as a perfect movie, in my experience), but the individual scenes are very often judged to perfection-- not overplayed, not underplayed, not too long, not too short, not too cheesy, not too scared of cheesiness.

One example will suffice. Steve Carell plays the villain of the film, the overbearing and subtly sadistic stepfather of the protagonist, who is a shy and dreamy fourteen-year-old boy called Duncan. The film opens with the stepfather asking Duncan how he rates himself on a scale of one to ten. Upon Duncan (reluctantly) rating himself as a six, the stepfather disagrees and tells Duncan that he rates him as a three-- because he doesn't make an effort, he says, adding that "the good news" is that all this is going to change.

Would an adult really say such a thing to the child of the woman he's dating? The achievement of the film is that it makes it seem very plausible. Not only this, but we buy into the idea that the stepfather-- with his designer stubble, his rather heavy-handed charm, and his overbearing confidence-- would not only succeed in seducing the boy's mother, but would also manage to have friends of the calibre we see in the movie, who are fundamentally likeable people.

Not that this is a realistic movie. In fact, it's the purest fantasy. Specifically, it's the fantasy of a fourteen-year-old boy, and the fourteen-year-old boy inside every adult male. (For this reason it might appeal less to women, though the women in the cinema this evening seemed to enjoy it.) Every boy wants to have a friend like the friend Duncan finds in the local water-park manager-- an adult in a position of responsibility who is never angry, and who is always fun, but is also willing to become a father figure when needed. And every boy yearns for the kind of female friend that Duncan makes-- a pretty, clever girl who is not (too) intimidating, is fascinated by him, and is there to comfort him when he needs comforting. Real life isn't like this-- more's the pity.

But in one respect, this movie reminds me of my own life. The waterpark is portrayed as more of a family than a workplace, all of the staff apparently having a blast every day and partying together after hours. This reminds me of my own job. I've worked in UCD library since 2001, and it's always felt like home-- a place where I grew up, a place where I was accepted, a background for the joys and the dramas of my life, even a second family. I don't go along with the idea that entertainment is always wish-fulfilment. Sometimes we like to see a fictional representation of the things that we actually have. Seeing this movie gave me a keener appreciation of my job.

I intend to catch this film again before it leaves theatres, and you can bet I'll buy the DVD when it comes out. I urge you to go to see it, too. If you don't like it, I'll reimburse you the price of the ticket myself. (Note: Offer is not legally enforceable.)

You Left Your Injun Running

Here's a joke. And since I am too lazy to paraphrase it, let me admit I lifted it (almost) verbatim from here (though I first read it on the "Lilt of Irish Laughter" page, in Ireland's Own magazine):

A man jumps out of an airplane with a parachute on his back. As he's falling, he realizes his parachute is broken. He doesn't know anything about parachutes, but as the earth rapidly approaches, he realizes his options are limited. He takes off the parachute and tries to fix it himself on the way down. The wind is ripping past his face, he's dropping like a rock, and at 5000 feet, another man goes shooting up past him. In desperation, the man with the chute looks up and yells, "Hey do you know anything about parachutes?!"

The guy flying up looks down and yells, "No, do you know anything about gas stoves?!"


Did you laugh? I hope so.

I posted this not so much for the sake of the joke itself (though I think it's a good one), but because I've been musing today about the nature of jokes. Have you ever noticed that the set-up to an outlandish joke is usually the funniest thing about such a joke, rather than the punchline-- even if the punchline is very funny?

In this joke, the idea of two men passing each other while one is plummeting to earth and the other is being shot into the air is not only funny, but somehow very poetic. It's also profound. Anyone can see that it is rather expressive of the human predicament and of human interaction.

Some people hate jokes. (And no, I don't just mean that they hate the jokes I tell. They really hate jokes. They say so.) I don't know whether it's rooted in their own personality, or whether it's an attitude they've picked up from elsewhere, but they seem to think that joke-telling is aggressive, uninspired and dull-- the province of fat, port-drinking, bottom-pinching senior civil servants in the billiard room of some gentleman's club. Some people profess, or at least they display, a preference for whimsy and quirkiness and deliberate nonsense.

I can't sympathise with these people. I love jokes, and I've always loved jokes. I love the poetry of jokes. I love how a joke conjures up a tiny little world of its own, a world as limited and as perfect in itself as the inside of a snowglobe. And-- despite the fact that jokes will always tend to outrage every standard of political correctness, and are notoriously supposed to re-assert societal power structures (or some such thing)-- jokes are very democratic. Unless they are in-jokes belonging to some trade or calling, they assume no special knowledge or sophistication on the part of the listeners. Why else are they so often used as ice-breakers?

Jokes are fascinating in many ways.

Jokes are the most perfect, compressed, economic form of short story.

Jokes are the most vibrant form of folklore.

Jokes are mysterious things. Where do they come from? Why do they take off? Why do they last as long as they do? Why do they eventually fall out of favour?

I have long harboured the ambition to study jokes at an academic level and to become a renowned expert upon them. Think of all the invitations you'd get-- radio shows, conferences, TV panel discussions! Think of the dinner parties! Think of the pleasure of telling someone who'd just told you the latest joke that, "Actually, variants of that joke were known in medieval Germany, and possibly before that"! Think of the long hours of "research", going through old copies of Punch and Tit-Bits!

I remember when I was a child, painting a picture of Paddy Englishman, Paddy Scotsman, and Paddy Irishman (a rather strange Irish joke cycle-- why would an Englishman or a Scotsman be called Paddy?) My motive for painting it was entirely to try to capture the timeless, mythological, golden atmosphere of their world.

At least two writers that I know of-- G.K. Chesterton and John D. Sheridan-- have written about the religious implications of humour. Humour doesn't make much sense if you have a materialist conception of the world. If man belongs entirely to the realm of the physical, just like waves or beetles or hurricanes, what could be comical about his adventures and indignities? I won't try to define humour, since no definition ever seems to fit. But everybody senses that it involves some kind of contrast between expectation and outcome, between appropriateness and incongruity, between dignity and indignity. How can any of these ideas apply to a materialist universe, where there are no moral norms, no intrinsic purpose or function, no such word as should? And-- although this is harder to argue, but I think anyone would feel the truth about it if they were honest-- how could we laugh without some inner assurance that the universe is ultimately friendly?

(Not that I agree with everything G.K. Chesterton wrote about humour. The great man once wrote: "Unless a thing is dignified, it cannot be undignified. Why is it funny that a man should sit down suddenly in the street? There is only one possible or intelligent reason: that man is the image of God. It is not funny that anything else should fall down; only that a man should fall down." Well, one of the funniest things I ever saw was a cow climbing onto a wooden trailer that was slanted upwards, only to come crashing down a moment later. The cow was on my aunt's farm. Goodness knows why she decided to climb on the trailer.)

I guess I'm not going to get away with ending this post without another joke. OK, here goes. I've never known this one not to get a laugh (though doubtless you, Gentle Reader, will defy all precedence).

A man goes to the dentist for a check-up, and the dentist says: "Well, look at this! The plate I put in the top of your mouth a few years ago, is nearly all corroded! What have you been eating?"

"I don't know", says the patient. "What would do that?"

"Well, try to think of something you started eating recently."

The patient thinks for a little while, gives an embarrassed laugh, and says: "Oh...there is one thing. Hollandaise sauce. I've developed quite the appetite for it. In fact, I have it several times a week. I won't have to give it up, will I?"

"Not at all", said the dentist. "I know how to fix it pretty easily. I'll just replace this metal plate with a chrome plate."

"Chrome?", asked the patient. "But why chrome?"

"Haven't you ever heard?", asked the dentist. "There's no plate like chrome for the hollandaise."


Boom boom!

Monday, September 2, 2013

Trollope on Suspense

I am reading Trollope again. It's Barchester Towers this time, and I am enjoying it vastly. This is quite a pleasant surprise for me, as novels have nearly always been something I took up with reluctance and put down with relief, even if I enjoy occasional passages along the way.

It's not that I've never enjoyed novels. When I was a teenager, I read and re-read the novels of the Irish writer Walter Macken, who did quite a nice line in observation of the everyday, and was also gifted at describing the odd thoughts and tricks of association that flow through a man's brain. (I don't think he ever had a female protagonist.) And in my early twenties I became a passionate fan of J.P. Donleavy, the American-Irish writer of lyrical, farcical, bawdy novels. Isaac Asimov, the science fiction writer, gave me much pleasure when I was younger.

But I think I've trudged through far more novels than I've actually relished. Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Thackeray, Defoe, Joseph Conrad, George Eliot, Henry James, Kingsley Amis, Anthony Powell, Ray Bradbury, E.M. Forster, D.H. Lawrence...the list of novelists who have, to a greater or lesser extent, bored me is long and lustrous. Even my beloved Chesterton ceases to interest me once he intones those supposedly magical words, "Once upon a time..."

So it's a nice change to gobble up fiction for once.

As with any powerful writer, it's hard to describe what it is I enjoy so much about Trollope. Virginia Woolf (I forgot to add her to the above list) said that reading Trollope gives you the same pleasure that you get from looking out the window. Of course, that begs the question as to why you don't just go and look out the window instead of reading a book...but then again, our modern world of cars and emails seems less appealing to me than the Trollopian world of carriages and hand-delivered notes.

But, even without the emails and cars, the men and women Trollope depicts are men and women who I recognize, even though social mores have changed significantly. They worry about money and status, get bored, gossip, flirt. They have noble impulses and then admire themselves for having noble impulses. They have low thoughts and then feel guilty for having low thoughts. Everybody compares Dickens to Trollope, and to me, the comparison is not entirely in Dickens's favour. The outrageously villainous Dickensian villain, the tediously noble-hearted Dickensian heroine, and the grotesqueries of the Dickensian eccentric are not something I recognize from real life.

But I didn't intend to write a general appreciation of Trollope in this post. I just wanted to comment on one particular passage that delighted me in Barchester Towers. After revealing to the reader that two different men are planning to pay court to a wealthy widow, Trollope goes on to reveal that their designs will come to naught:

But let the gentle-hearted reader be under no apprehension whatsoever. It is not destined that Eleanor shall marry Mr Slope or Bertie Stanhope. And here, perhaps, it may be allowed to the novelist to explain his views on a very important point in the art of telling tales. He ventures to reprobate that system which goes so far to violate all proper confidence between the author and his readers, by maintaining nearly to the end of the third volume a mystery as to the fate of their favourite personage. Nay, more, and worse than this, is too frequently done. Have not often the profoundest efforts of genius been used to baffle the aspirations of the reader, to raise false hopes and false fears, and to give rise to expectations which are never realised? Are not promises all but made of delightful horrors, in lieu of which the writer produces nothing but commonplace realities in his final chapter? And is there not a species of deceit in this to which the honesty of the present age should lend no countenance?

And what can be the worth of that solicitude which a peep into the third volume can utterly dissipate? What the value of those literary charms which are absolutely destroyed by their enjoyment? When we have once learnt what was the picture before which was hung Mrs Radcliffe's solemn curtain, we feel no further interest about either the frame or the veil. They are to us, merely a receptacle for old bones, and inappropriate coffin, which we would wish to have decently buried out of our sight.

And then, how grievous a thing it is to have the pleasure of your novel destroyed by the ill-considered triumph of a previous reader. 'Oh, you needn't be alarmed, for Augusta, of course, she accepts Gustavus in the end.' 'How very ill-natured you are, Susan,' says Kitty, with tears in her eyes; 'I don't care a bit about it now.' Dear Kitty, if you will read my book, you may defy the ill-nature of your sister. There shall be no secret that she can tell you. Nay, take the last chapter, if you please--learn from its pages all the results of our troubled story, and the story shall have lost none of its interest, if indeed, there be any interest in it to lose.


Of course, this is not entirely serious, since Trollope does in fact use suspense to some extent, as all story-tellers must. But, insofar as it is a serious point, I loudly applaud it.

I've never understood why other people are so concerned about keeping the end of a story a secret. I've trained myself, with much effort, to respect their preferences and to avoid "spoilers" when describing a movie or another work of fiction. But as for myself, I very often read (usually on Wikipedia) the entire plot of a film that I'm thinking of going to see. It never diminishes my pleasure (or displeasure) one little bit. Who doesn't enjoy a good movie more, the second time they watch it? Whatever enjoyment rests upon suspense is the lowest and cheapest of enjoyments.