Thursday, September 11, 2014

Response (after Helinand)

Thirteen years ago today, the city I loved and lived in was attacked in the most spectacular and unbelievable of ways. Every year when the anniversary comes around, I once again confront the memories of the confusion, disbelief, and fear that overcame the city on that day. I remember most distinctly two things: the smell of the smoke, which started to blow uptown on the afternoon of September 12, after it had blown out toward Brooklyn for the previous day, and the seemingly unending series of funerals at St. Patrick's Cathedral. Every day brought a new chorus of bagpipes, every evening a gathering of tipsy firemen in their sharp, dress-blue uniforms crowding into the pub on West 48th Street to drink to the memory of their many fallen comrades.

I recall reading somewhere at the time that there was an increased interest in poetry among many Americans. I personally recall taking solace in Edna St. Vincent Millay's Collected Sonnets around that time, as well as writing poems of my own. It occurred to me just this evening that the September 11 attacks, as has always been the case with wars, with tragedies, with deaths, is that it was an event somehow beyond the power of prose.

This year, I resolved, then, to write more verse about the event, this time in the manner of Helinand of Froidmont. Helinand was a troubadour in late 12th/early 13th century France, at a time when vernacular poetry was ascendant. Sometime in or around 1182, he left literary success and the world behind and entered the Cistercian abbey of Froidmont, where he lived out his days as a monk. While there, he composed a series of Verses on Death, which survive to this day. The allusion to his work indicates the solemnity of the event, while rhythm and rhyme structure (12 lines in tetrameter, with rhyme pattern aab aab bba bba) have a driving force to them and are unusual enough that it struck me as a worthy challenge to follow the master in this year's composition.

Response (after Helinand)

The date Vienna's siege was raised
The sapphire sky with sunshine blazed:
From it did winged death descend.
Into the cloudless air all gazed,
No lost course could be appraised.
With purpose did the birds offend:
Silver missiles sent to upend
A city's life. It did not end:
The fireball, the smoke, the dazed
Expressions. Hands, helpless to lend,
Yet did on acrid plume ascend:
Forgotten never, ever praised.

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Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Ten Memorable Paintings

I've been away from writing on this blog so long I'm surprised it's still around. Writing and I have always had a troubled relationship -- on again, off again: I work in an office and get more ideas than I can process, and by the time I get home I'm too tired, hungry, lazy, distracted, and whatever else to sit down and type things up. The ideas come as if out of a firehose, and I simply don't have the attention span to put them down anywhere, so they vanish back into the ether whence they come.

Over the past several months, I've found myself lacking words and instead thinking in images; I've been dabbling in drawing and painting with the hope that I'll be able to build technique sufficient to externalize what's going on in my head.

In the interim, I will do the halfway thing and write about paintings. There's been one of those "challenges" going around on facebook lately to write a list of Ten Books that Were Meaningful to you; several friends tagged me in this and I found myself unable to narrow the list down to ten.

Defiant soul that I am, I gave up and decided to list ten paintings instead. I set for myself the following criteria: they had to be paintings I've seen in person, rather than simply prints or reproductions in books or posters; they had to be paintings that immediately struck me when I first saw them in person, rather than simply ones I liked or that I make a point of seeing whenever I go to the museums where they reside. I wanted, essentially, to document paintings that had presence, for lack of a better word. Lastly, they had to be paintings, rather than sculptures, photographs, or drawings.

And so, here we go (in no particular order):

The Tortoise and the Hare, Brittany Bennett, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts student show, 2014. I had the pleasure of visiting a friend in Philadelphia this past spring and we happened upon the student show at PAFA. I was struck by both the wit and the realism of Brittany Bennett's still life, with its reminder that even the swift run the way of all flesh, and the rich variety of textures. The viewer can resist only with great difficulty the urge to reach in and stroke the lucky rabbit's foot.

    Portrait of Paris von Gutersloh, Egon Schiele, Minneapolis Institute of Arts. I grew up in Minneapolis and was fortunate to have the world-class MIA as my hometown museum; it was a place I retreated to on days when I skipped class or called in sick to work to get some quiet. Schiele's portrait of his friend was the first and clearest use of complementary colors that I recall encountering; the bright blue necktie stands out from the oranges and golds of the overall composition and stands at the halfway point between the subject's dramatically-posed hands, drawing the viewer's eyes toward the intent gaze of his eyes.

    Office at Night, Edward Hopper, Walker Art Center. Minneapolis is also home to the Walker Art Center, where one finds more modern and contemporary art than at the MIA. Edward Hopper's Office at Night depicts a sort of lonely claustrophobia; the viewer feels like a voyeur gazing in on an scene that raises more questions than it answers: what is the relationship between the subjects? What are they doing at the office together so late? Do they sense the sexual tension that the viewer senses looking at them? What will happen next?

    Nude on a Couch, Gustave Caillebotte, Minneapolis Institute of Arts. When I was about 6 years old or so, I recall triumphantly bounding into a New Year's Eve party my parents were hosting after they thought I had gone to bed. I had somehow found the Sears catalog and discovered the lingerie section. Some years later, when I first saw Caillebotte's reclining nude, with her shoes beside the couch and clothes strewn behind her head, I experienced the same thrilling sense of discovery.

    The Agnew Clinic, Thomas Eakins, University of Pennsylvania. I have written before about the personal significance of Thomas Eakins's painting in my life. The subject matter and the size combine to make this a painting that one confronts rather than simply sees.

    Fox Hunt, Winslow Homer, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Winslow Homer's Fox Hunt is perhaps the most terrifying painting I have seen in person. The large, dark crows menacing the hungry fox in the snow convey a profound, dark fatalism, a sense of psychological dread.

    Washington Crossing the Delaware, Emanuel Leutze, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Leutze's painting is one of those images so familiar to American schoolchildren by way of history books that you don't expect to be moved by it, until you walk into its presence and see that it is immense (149 x 255 in.)! Washington Crossing the Delaware's size and angular lines convey a sense of destiny and inevitability that cannot but affect the viewer.

    Lucretia, Rembrandt, Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Rembrandt masterfully depicts all the tragic strength of Lucretia here; she has already struck herself the fatal blow, and yet she still firmly grasps the blade in her right hand, while her mournful eyes gaze upon her left hand, with which she will momentarily drawn down the final curtain.

    Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau), John Singer Sargent, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Sargent depicts a different sort of powerful female beauty, that of Mme. Pierre Gautreau. Clad in a stark black that makes her marble-white skin glow against the rich browns of the background, Mme. X is both powerfully alluring and yet aloof and mysterious. To enter her presence is to encounter iconic female beauty, a glimpse of Woman herself.

    Embrace of Peace II, George Tooker, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. George Tooker, like Edward Hopper, was one of the great painters of loneliness and alienation. His most famous works depict the anxieties and isolation of modern life in a way that few others have been able to capture. It is perhaps surprising, then, to see his later work imbued with such tenderness, intimacy, and lightness. When I first saw his Embrace of Peace II, I came to think that this is how I hope heaven to be; I have described it as "one big hello," where all long separations come to a joyful end, forever.

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    Sunday, September 22, 2013

    "That forever empty."

    Louis CK is crass and crude, and also one of the funniest and most brilliant comedians out there today. Here in a recent appearance on Conan O'Brien's show he rants against cell phones, noting that our tendency to texting and other forms of instant communication indicate our inability to be alone.

    It's a rather monastic view of the world; the most difficult thing to do is to be alone in silence, apart from the distractions and obstacles to self-knowledge we place before us constantly. As Louis CK notes, we never come to know either true happiness or true sadness as a result, leaving us stunted in our growth.

    It was reminiscent of this famous appearance he made years ago, making fun of our materialism and our sense of entitlement.

    "Everything is amazing and nobody is happy" by Meowbay

    It's no wonder I like him, and also that I pray for him to join the fold.


    Monday, September 16, 2013

    Ways in which toddlers are like alcoholics

    I was at a friend's wedding over the weekend; there was a large number of families with young children in attendance at the reception. At one point, a three-year-old boy scampered across the dance floor without pants and knocked over a small, child-sized chair, falling down in the process. I turned to a friend and said, "Oh thank God I'm not the first person here to take off his pants and knock over the furniture!"

    I then got to thinking and realized how similar are the behaviors of toddlers and drunks: talking loudly, poor motor skills, knocking over furniture, falling down, taking off clothes, grabbing crotches, throwing punches when irritated, falling asleep on the floor when tired. I stepped back and realized how grateful I was that God delivered from the old life, in which it's possible that I would have behaved like a toddler.


    Sunday, September 15, 2013

    Things That Bring Me Joy

    Small things contained within larger like things, such as matryoshkas:

    source: Wikipedia

    Things which signify their contents, like this bottle of maple syrup:

    Friends who know me are aware of how these things delight my philosophical side. Upon further reflection, I have discovered a third thing, namely contemporary things restyled in an old style, such as the anachronistic reworkings of current pop hits by Postmodern Jukebox:

    I found the Scott Bradlee/Postmodern Jukebox videos and got the sense that things like this were the telos of the Internet.

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    Thursday, September 12, 2013

    "American Exceptionalism" and Foreign Intervention

    In one of those Obama-era bizzaro-world episodes, Vladimir Putin writes an op-ed in the Sept 12 edition of The New York Times and sounds like a reasonable statesman in the process. Frank Weathers suggests that Putin has read Pope Paul VI's address to the UN in 1965. An especially striking moment of the Russian President's article is this:
    I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.
     I first need to say I take a rather cautious approach to Vladimir Putin; he writes and says things that appeal to many people who look for leadership in the world and find it wanting. In this piece, he rightfully points out the disastrous consequences of previous American actions in the region and he cautions against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, especially among nations who feel they have no other means of defense than to develop WMD. At the same time, it's good to remember that he's a former KGB colonel and someone who is skilled at power plays that help him to grow in influence. Putin has had a good week, helping Secretary Kerry and President Obama to look foolish and desperate to attack Syria in order to restore their credibility on the world stage; now, he is able to extend a bit of "friendly advice" in America's newspaper of record, reminding Americans that Obama is in over his head and that Putin is not.

    To get to the point, let's look at the notion of "American exceptionalism" that Putin disparages. It's worth looking at because Putin is correct on this. The phrase "American exceptionalism" is, interestingly, one that seems to be thrown around in connection with an American plan to topple a foreign regime or to exercise force in the interest of "humanitarianism" or "democracy"; it seems to suggest that, rather than be exceptional, we must as a basic point of our foreign policy seek to make other places more like America.

    In contrast, a properly ordered sense of "exceptionalism" is one that I suggest we embrace. When reading the work of thinkers such as Rusell Kirk, one comes to see that the American experiment in constitutional self-governance is born of a special set of cultural and historical circumstances: we are a product of Judeo-Christian morals and religion, Greek and Roman political ideals, and English language, literature, and common law. Kirk examines these influences in The Roots of American Order, while Orestes Brownson sees Divine Providence working itself out differently in different places and times in The American Republic. America is exceptional in that our system of constitutional republicanism ("government of the people, by the people, for the people," to use the words of the Gettysburg Address) can only work here, if at all; republican governance has not even taken root in England or Europe, much less in other parts of the world that do not have the philosophical and religious principles at their roots that we do.

    And so to the question of intervention, at least that which seeks to effect regime change; how can it possibly work out for the better? Iraq and Afghanistan, despite a decade's worth of blood, treasure, and time spilled and invested remain places scarred by corruption and tribal infighting. In toppling or pushing aside pliable strongmen such as Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Qaddafi, we have introduced new layers of instability, insurgency, and oppression to Egypt and Libya respectively. With our sites now turned on Syria and Bashar al-Assad, how can we expect anything different there based on these previous experiences?

    Of particular note in relation to Syria, having now seen the horrific persecution by Sunni jihadists against Christians and other religious minorities throughout the region, is to ask, "Why would anyone who cares about the rights of Christians and other minority groups seek to assist murderous Al Qaeda thugs overthrow stable but despotic strongmen rulers? And yet we see, just today, that the CIA has commenced sending weapons to the Al Qaeda jihadists who are fighting against the government.

    And in the midst of it all, a cunning KGB colonel is there warning us, in light of our own recent history, that "Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan “you’re either with us or against us.”" Maybe it's time we study our own history and abandon the pattern of foreign intervention that seeks only to cause more instability.

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    Wednesday, September 11, 2013

    "Small talk exists simply to cannibalize silence"

    Matt Walsh has had enough of your noise.

    While reading Mr. Walsh's piece, particularly his delicious broadside against small talk, I was reminded of my own introversion, of my need for silence and solitude, and also of the things I found most moving about my time away at the monastery. - I'm considering monastic life because I like people, but not that much.

    My favorite time of the day was the long period of time after vigils and before lauds - 4 AM to 6:30 AM - that was reserved for private prayer and lectio divina in cell; I would leave the chapel after vigils, go down the corridor to the refectory, have a piece of toast with peanut butter, a bowl of raisin bran, and a cup of weak coffee and consume all those in silence. Then I would go up the three floors to my cell to do my private prayers, readings, and devotions: I'd start with my Angelic Warfare Confraternity prayers, imploring God's assistance against the mercilessly unchaste thoughts and memories that beset me every day; then I would say a rosary, lying on my back in a cruciform posture; after that, I would set about my reading, usually passages form the epistles, as well as works by a variety of writers such as Bede the Venerable, John of Forde, St. Bernard, Caryll Houselander, and others. I tried reading Gertrude the Great, but found her too girly for my tastes; I settled into some of Newman's Plain and Parochial Sermons and one point, and into a biography of St. Hugh of Lincoln. I was smitten with English saints.

    But I digress. It happens, though; the monastery was a place where the imagination could wander, where I could sit still long enough to give Jesus a chance to be heard over the noise within. And it is noisy in there; that's the thing that terrifies us so about silence: only in the silence and solitude are we forced to confront our true selves in any meaningful way. I believe that is why our world is so noisy; we do not want to confront ourselves in our weakness, our regrets, in our crushing desires and insatiable appetites. We would rather have those things numbed, dulled, dampened by a constant onslaught of sight and sound. That confrontation was one of the most difficult and painful things I've ever experienced, and yet it was also beautifully transformative.

     It is my hope that I can carry that message to the world, to let people know that there is nothing to fear in silence and solitude, that to confront God's love there is something that will change you forever, for the better. I want people to know that there is more out there than the noise, that we are meant for more than it.

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    Saturday, September 07, 2013

    "The Prayer that Rises Among the Drums of War"

    A community of Trappistine nuns join Pope Francis in his call for peace in Syria, noting that prayer and fasting remain the weapons par excellence in the battle against powers and principalities, just as Jesus teaches us in the Gospel. This community last week wrote a scathing letter in response to the Obama administration's plans to involve itself in the Syrian war, writing, "There is something wrong, and it is something very serious…because the consequences will be wrought on the lives of an entire population…it is in the blood that fills our streets, our eyes, our hearts."

    To side with the Al Qaeda jihadists fighting the Syrian regime is to make war on the religious minorities in that war-torn nation, particularly the Christians who have been there since the days of the early Church. The nuns know this, and yet our own leadership is blind to it.

    Please join in prayer and fasting today that peace prevail in Syria and that we not involve ourselves in yet another disastrous conflict in the region.

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    Friday, September 06, 2013

    Pray & Fast for Peace in Syria

    While celebrities, leftist journalists, and Bush-era anti-war protesters either hide out or do what they can to run interference on behalf of their beloved Nobel Peace Prize-winning leader, Pope Francis has taken the lead in the war against powers and principalities by calling upon all the faithful to pray and fast on September 7 for peace in Syria.

    The Holy Father himself will preside over a prayer vigil at the Vatican, and he calls upon all of us, Catholic, non-Catholic, non-Christian, and nonbeliever alike to pursue peace:
    All men and women of good will are bound by the task of pursuing peace. I make a forceful and urgent call to the entire Catholic Church, and also to every Christian of other confessions, as well as to followers of every religion and to those brothers and sisters who do not believe: peace is a good which overcomes every barrier, because it belongs all of humanity!
    Let us pray that our Congress defeats the proposed resolution to authorize the use of American force against the Syrian government; let us pray for a peaceful resolution to the war; let us pray for the preservation of the Church in Syria, brutally persecuted by Al Qaeda jihadists.

    Let us pester our Congressmen and Senators and demand a "No" vote from them on the resolution, and let us not lose sight of the reality that Christ is victorious in the midst of tribulation.

    Image from Ignatius Press facebook page

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    Once again, BuzzFeed left the internets unlocked overnight and Ace of Spades coblogger John Ekdahl sneaked in to post "14 Principled Anti-War Celebrities We Fear May Have Been Kidnapped."


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