Archives for May 2009

Dr. George Tiller has been shot and killed.

It’s complicated.

Thanks to the New Mexico Nurse for passing along this story about a reporter/advocate who was, um, forcibly removed from anywhere near where the President might eventually be.

“Lee said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press that she wanted to hand Obama a letter urging him ‘to take a stand for traditional marriage.’ She said she asked a Secret Service agent to give the president her letter, but he refused and referred her to a White House staffer. Lee said she refused to give the staffer the letter. ‘I said, “I’ll take my chances if (the president) comes by here,”‘ said Lee, who identified herself as a Roman Catholic priestess who lives in Anaheim, Calif. ‘He became annoyed that I wouldn’t give him the letter.'”

To sum up: a Roman Catholic priestess from Anaheim who reports for the Georgia Informer got in trouble for trying to pass a note to the President asking him to oppose gay marriage.

From Raising Arizona:

“It’s a crazy world.”

“Someone oughtta sell tickets.”

“I’d buy one.”

Today in Porn, Theology of the Body Edition, Continued

Michael Waldstein and Janet Smith weigh in on West v. Schindler. Sounds like it’s time for a symposium.


So Gawker ran this photo of a bullfight protest in Spain. Dramatic, no? Now, just as a thought experiment, imagine it’s an abortion protest.

Because, you know, Catholic Artists.

Daniel Mitsui, aka Mr. Medieval, is offering prints of what he considers his finest work to date* (see above) for $135.

Now, just in case that seems dear, here’s an additional impetus. From Mitsui’s blog: “My son, Benedict Amadeus Mitsui, is now more than a week old…Michelle started to have regular contractions on the afternoon of Sunday, May 3rd. Her labor lasted seventy-two hours, the first sixty unmedicated. After a final three hours of hard pushing, the doctors declared that the baby was showing signs of distress, and that a caesarian section was the only remaining option. Thusly our son was born, just after 4 o’clock on Wednesday afternoon, May 6th…It is likely, even with insurance my wife and I have, that the hospital bills for so difficult a delivery will destroy us financially. The one asset that I can hope to convert to money is artwork – and I have a lot of it. In the coming weeks, I will be posting several notices of sales on my existing artwork. If you have contacted me in the past about buying a drawing, only to find it too expensive, please contact me again. All prices are open to negotiation.”

Think of it as an NPR fundraiser without all the tedious puffery. “For your donation of just $135, you receive this top-notch modern religious illustration – AND you help to support quality Catholic artists.”

*Account of imagery here.

From The YouTube Music Video Archives: Django by the Modern Jazz Quartet

I’ve heard mention of the Modern Jazz Quartet over the years and finally got around to picking up “Django” – one of their masterpieces, according to fans. I like it; like the vibes especially. The song “Django” was composed by the group’s pianist, John Lewis. It is one of his best known compositions, written in memory of the French/Belgian gypsy guitarist, Django Reinhardt.

Today in Porn, Theology of the Body Edition

So Christopher West, who has built a career out of bringing John Paul II’s Theology of the Body to the masses, made it onto Nightline, and said some things which he says were taken out of context. In particular:

“I actually see very profound historical connections between Hugh Hefner and John Paul II” – in particular, for the way each attempted to rescue sex from Victorian prudishness. “I love Hugh Hefner. I really do. Why? Because I think I understand his ache. I think I understand his longing because I feel it myself. There is this yearning, this ache, this longing we all have for love, for union, for intimacy.”

Dr. Alice Von Hldebrand was not pleased, and spoke out against what she saw as West’s loose-cannon approach. The sanctification of sex, she argued, implies “a humility, a spirit of reverence, and totally avoiding the vulgarity that he uses in his language…I’m shocked and horrified by the words that he uses. His mere mention of Hugh Hefner is to my mind an abomination.”

Now, David L. Schindler, Provost/Dean and Gagnon Professor of Fundamental Theology at the Pontifical Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family (and, if memory serves, something of a mentor to my sister-in-law Lisa), is weighing in:

“West presents a problem for the Church, not because he lacks orthodox intentions, but because his unquestionably orthodox intentions render his theology, a priori, all the more credible. His work often deflects people from the beauty and depth of what is the authentic meaning of John Paul II’s anthropology of love, and thus of what was wrought in and through the Second Vatican Council. It is scarcely the first time in the history of the Church that abundant good will did not suffice to make one’s theology and vision of reality altogether true.”

Schindler’s response is more nuanced and less shocked than Von Hildebrand’s, and includes bits like this: “In the end, West, in his disproportionate emphasis on sex, promotes a pansexualist tendency that ties all important human and indeed supernatural activity back to sex without the necessary dissimilitudo.”

I think it’s good to see this kind of back-and-forth – why, it’s almost like peer review! – and I look forward to West’s responses.

Today in Porn, Literary Edition

Marilyn Monroe reading Ulysses while sitting on a child’s playground.

Lit Crit Hit of the Day: Robert Dale Parker’s "Sanctuary and Bad Taste"

Robert Dale Parker is a professor of English at the Univeristy of Illinois, whose work I’ve admired for some years. First it was an article on Elizabeth Bishop, and just today I came across this recent analysis of the Faulkner novel everybody loves to admit they like even as they admit how bad it is, but love it anyway. Or something like that. Parker explains it all better than I ever could:

And so this essay will be an exercise in taste and an exploration of the novel as an exercise in taste. Let me say right off: I think Sanctuary is in bad taste. I think it took bad taste to write it, and it takes bad taste to ask our students to read it. Perhaps nowhere is bad taste more deplored than in France, or so at least Americans like to believe. Perhaps that is also why no one appreciates bad taste more than the French, as Americans also like to believe, typically citing the French delight in the films of Jerry Lewis, but perhaps we could also cite the French taste for Faulkner on both counts, good taste and bad taste, and also good taste in bad taste.

Now I have to go read Sanctuary all over again.

The Long and Winding Road

Okay, last bit on the Gooch bio of O’Connor, I promise. But Gooch himself is kind of a fascinating case, and if I were a rich Catholic editor, I’d send someone to chat with him. The story in his acknowledgements would make a fine jumping-off point.

By the time O’Connor’s The Habit of Being came out in 1979, O’Connor was already Gooch’s “favorite fiction writer.” He was a Columbia grad student with a concentration in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, and detected in O’Connor “the subtle tug of a spiritual quest in a dark universe animated by grace and significance.”

Gooch wrote to O’Connor’s longtime friend and supporter Sally Fitzgerald, who had edited The Habit of Being, and proposed writing O’Connor’s biography. Fitzgerald demurred, writing in reply that she was already working on a bio of her own. Disappointed, Gooch patiently waited for its publication. And waited. And then, “Sally Fitzgerald…died in June 2000, at the age of eighty-three, leaving behind an unfinished manuscript that has yet to appear.” (Another story worth investigating…)

Gooch writes, “As my personal test for deciding on projects has always been to write the book I want to read but cannot find on the shelf, I could think of no better choice” than the O’Connor biography.

But in the meantime, Gooch wrote a bunch of other books that he couldn’t find on the shelf. There were a bunch of gay-themed novels: Scary Kisses, The Golden Age of Promiscuity, and Zombie00. There were a couple of gay self-help books: Finding the Boyfriend Within: A Practical Guide for Tapping Into Your Own Source of Love, Happiness, and Respect and Dating the Greek Gods: Empowering Spiritual Messages on Sex and Love, Creativity and Wisdom. There was City Poet, his bio of gay poet Frank O’Hara. And of course, there was Godtalk: Travels in Spiritual America.

So yeah – it’s interesting to note that two of O’Connor’s dear friends were women who found women attractive, and it is not particularly surprising or bothersome that Gooch would choose to highlight such things. (As a Catholic, I would likely have focused more on her experience of faith and the development of her theology.) But I think Gooch would be happy to acknowledge that the subject of his most recent biography, were she alive today, would very likely find in his earlier material grist for her particular fictional mill. Spiritual meanderings? Finding the boyfriend within? Empowering messages on creativity? A story about a young man who seeks to become a zombie and subjects himself to the sexual sadism of various masters? This is pitching to O’Connor’s wheelhouse. I would be very interested to hear Gooch’s own thoughts on the matter.


That was the word that came to mind while reading this essay by Joyce Carol Oates about Flannery O’Connor. Oates slogs her way through an account of O’Connor’s life and work (in particular, as presented by biographer Brad Gooch), dwelling as much (or moreso) on matters sexual as Gooch himself. But then, at the end, we get to the Point of Things, as Oates shifts from first to fifth gear and jams down on the accelerator:

“Is the art of caricature a lesser or secondary art, set beside what we might call the art of complexity or subtlety? Is ‘cartoon’ art invariably inferior to ‘realist’ art? The caricaturist has the advantage of being cruel, crude, reductive, and often very funny; as the ‘realist’ struggles to establish the trompe l’oeil of verisimilitude, without which the art of realism has little power to persuade, the caricaturist wields a hammer, or an ax, or sprays the target with machine-gun fire, transmuting what might be rage—the savage indignation of Jonathan Swift, for instance—into devastating humor. Satire is the weapon of rectitude, a way of meting out punishment. Satire regrets nothing, and revels in unfairness in its depiction of what Flannery O’Connor called ‘large and startling figures.’ It isn’t surprising to learn that O’Connor began her career as a creative artist by drawing cartoons in mockery of human fatuousness and frailty or that her earliest efforts were satirical pieces…Not the shimmering multidimensionality of modernism but the two-dimensionality of cartoon art is at the heart of the work of O’Connor, whose unshakable absolutist faith provided her with a rationale with which to mock both her secular and bigoted Christian contemporaries in a succession of brilliantly orchestrated short stories that read like parables of human folly confronted by mortality.”

But seriously, Ms. Oates, tell us how you really feel. And never mind O’Connor’s oft-repeated dictum that the artist is bound, first and foremost, by the reality which he actually sees before him.

Cool San Diego

Taken last night as I drove along El Cajon Boulevard.

Trader Joe’s had a sale.

Margarita season comes early this year.


So the trailer for the new Sherlock Holmes movie almost made me sad.

But then I remembered this excellent article on movie marketing I read in a copy of The New Yorker I found on the ground in a mall parking lot:

“The collective wisdom is that young males like explosions, blood, cars flying through the air, pratfalls, poop jokes, ‘you’re so gay’ banter, and sex—but not romance. Young women like friendship, pop music, fashion, sarcasm, sensitive boys who think with their hearts, and romance—but not sex (though they like to hear the naughty girl telling her friends about it). They go to horror films as much as young men, but they hate gore; you lure them by having the ingénue take her time walking down the dark hall.

“Older women like feel-good films and Nicholas Sparks-style weepies: they are the core audience for stories of doomed love and triumphs of the human spirit. They enjoy seeing an older woman having her pick of men; they hate seeing a child in danger. Particularly once they reach thirty, these women are the most ‘review-sensitive’: a chorus of critical praise for a movie aimed at older women can increase the opening weekend’s gross by five million dollars. In other words, older women are discriminating, which is why so few films are made for them.

“Older men like darker films, classic genres such as Westerns and war movies, men protecting their homes, and men behaving like idiots. Older men are easy to please, particularly if a film stars Clint Eastwood and is about guys just like them, but they’re hard to motivate. ‘Guys only get off their couches twice a year, to go to ‘Wild Hogs’ or ‘3:10 to Yuma,’ ‘ the marketing consultant Terry Press says. ‘If all you have is older males, it’s time to take a pill.'”

And there it is.

On Pniniad: Vladimir Nabokov and Marc Szeftel by Galya Diment

This first-rate scholarly study of the relationship between Marc Szeftel and Vladimir Nabokov has been endorsed by such heavyweight academics as Brian Boyd and Robert Alter, and I can only add that if there is such a thing as required reading for non-specialists in Nabokovopolis, this should be at the top of the list. Galya Diment provides a fairly conclusive argument that Mark Szeftel was an important model for the Russian Master’s third novel written in English, the second in America.

The heart of the book consists of five chapters and a conclusion, and also contains appendixes from Marc Szeftel’s archive and own writings. The latter includes of selections from his diaries, which make it pretty obvious that Szeftel wasn’t nearly as comfortable a solipsist as the alter ego fate appears to have dealt him. And man, did he ever know it. Some of the passages included in Diment’s study read like outtakes from a rough draft of Kinbote’s, without the miniscule amount of self-awareness the fictive scholar was able to muster. They certainly exhibit nothing like the former king’s rather heady imagination, in which readers have taken so much delight. What is there, and what Diment makes all too clear, is a great deal of sadness. The sadness of an émigré, the sadness of a scholar, and perhaps even the sadness of a century.

Szeftel seems to have toiled long and hard in the academic vineyards, at times with scholars as notable as Roman Jacobsen, and for reasons that perhaps only Nabokov himself knows, never really achieved his due regard as an academic. More to the point, he seems to have settled just outside the realm of humiliation and some grand joke at the hands of everyone from the great writer to colleagues and even his students. The operative paradox here is that Szeftel would have remained one of life’s unknown little tragedies had it not been for his immortalization as the Russian specialist at Waindell, but as Diment evinces he may well have never felt himself to be quite so tragic a character at all if he hadn’t crossed paths with the accomplished poet-lepodiatrist-teacher-scholar-writer from St. Petersberg. One of Szeftel’s books was praised by Nabokov, he was once on the verge of actually working with Nabokov, and he long contemplated scholarly studies of Lolita even after he became one of the models for Pnin. In the end he produced a few anecdotes about exchanges with Nabokov during the time they shared together at Cornell.

Along the way, Diment notes that a case has been made for considering Pnin an even greater work than the now monolithic Lolita, and by no less a scholar than Michael Wood in `The Magician’s Doubts.’ The reason for this originates in the rather more organically developed theme of the Double, a theme Szeftel himself consciously noted and, like several others (to Nabokov’s own consternation) tied to Doeseovsky. She expertly employs the work of other scholars to illuminate what is particularly special, if not unique, about Pnin’s relation to the novel he inhabits:

“The most dramatic declaration of Pnin’s independence and VN’s [the self-identified narrator of the novel] “just deserts” comes from Charles Nicol… Nicol actually goes as far as to describe the two men as atgonists and their relationship as a struggle between the “devilish” narrator and the innocent protagonist, in which Pnin “has confronted Nabokov and won.” (p.56)

It seems to me that Nicol overstates his case a little here, but I do think that Diment’s account of the narratological ambiguity that grew as the novel progressed and its roots in the brief conjunction of the fates of Szeftel and Nabokov is illuminating.

Diment is entirely evenhanded in her treatment of everyone involved, and the only particular bias consistently shown is her high regard for the Northwest, Szeftel’s final home and where she herself teaches (at the University of Washington, sponsors of the press that published this book). She notes that Szeftel never much enjoyed the region himself, and perhaps even saw it as the true boondocks, one of the many injuries to be suffered in a long and yet disappointing life. In its way, this is one of the saddest works of scholarship I’ve ever read. But it is gracefully written, and, as she says in the conclusion, a real tribute to the model, to the author, and to our ability to transform life through fiction. Marc Szeftel certainly did his best to partake of that transformation.

From The YouTube Music Video Archives: Signori! di fuori son già i suonatori from Le nozze di Figaro

Seattle Opera is playing one of Mozart’s finest through May 16. This trio is … so beautiful; certainly one of Mozart’s greatest achievements … no; one of the greatest achievements in the history of music. No, actually it’s the greatest achievement of all artistic endeavors in human history. That’s me doing an imitation of “Victor Eremita” in Either/Or. Kierkegaard’s greatest problem probably boils down to mistaking Don Giovanni as the high point of classical art. Moreover, the problematic nature of “The Immediate Erotic Stages or the Musical Erotic” in Either/Or has much to do with this failure to recognize Figaro as Mozart’s greatest work. Both Don Giovanni and Figaro are comedies about the role of erotic love in human society, but Figaro ends happily for all concened – forgiveness asked for and then granted. Don Giovanni ends with the hero, really an anti-hero, dragged down to hell by the guilt of his sins. Question: is the inclusion of Hell necessary for a full portrait of humanity?

Maybe, but must it really end there? I prefer Figaro’s evasions here:
Mente il ceffo, io già non mento.
(My face is lying then: I’m not.)

And then Susanna and the Contessa’s gentle revelation:
Il talento aguzzi invano
palesato abbiam l’arcano,
non v’è nulla da ridir.
(All your talent’s in vain
we have revealed the secret,
there’s nothing more to say.)

So the Count chimes in:
Che rispondi?
(So what do you say?)

Figaro takes the advice of the Contessa and Susanna:
Niente, niente.
(Nothing, nothing.)

The Count persists:
Dunque accordi?
(Then you own it?)

Non accordo.
(No, I don’t, sir!)

The Contessa and Susanna plead and declare:
Eh via, chetati, balordo,
la burletta ha da finir.
(Hold your tongue, you fool,
the comedy is over.)

“Not quite!” says Figaro:
Per finirla lietamente
e all’usanza teatrale
un’azion matrimoniale
le faremo ora seguir.
(Then, to end it properly
and in accordance with theatrical tradition
we now go to continue
with our marriage ceremony.)

The Way of Combat




"It only ends once; everything else is progress."

That’s from Jacob in the season finale of Lost. Given this attitude, it is of course no surprise to see him reading Flannery O’Connor’s Everything that Rises Must Converge, a collection named from a phrase coined by the Jesuit thinker Teilhard de Chardin, who envisioned all of creation as evolving toward the divine. First Sawyer reading Percy’s Lancelot, now this. Somebody‘s been reading their way around the Catholic Book Club.

And of course, Ben’s confrontation with Jacob was classic Job raging at God. “What about me?” “What about you?” Except for the stabbing part. It’s hard to stab God.