Archives for September 2008

Raffella’n Off Her Virginity

“She’s never had a boyfriend. I swear on my mother’s grave. She’s a devout Catholic and prays to Padre Pio every night,” her brother told the magazine.

Didn’t brothers from Naples used to commit acts of serious violence in order to defend the honor of their sisters?

Read the entire story here.

William Wilson, Guitarist Extraordinaire

Our man has a new release on iTunes, “Sketches & Impressions.” It is, to my ear, his most poppy release to date, and reminds me of some things I’ve heard while visiting with the California Lawyer and MCM.

Writes Wilson: “Most of them were written for my wife as little gifts. They reflect the time we spent together leading up to our marriage. ‘Sketches’ is a combination of her love of a lyrical melody, and the beauty of Irish music combined with my fondness for lush harmony, improvisation, and the writing of guitarist Michael Hedges.”

Dude is the real deal. Go, listen, buy.

Poetry Corner, Art Begins in a Wound Edition

If I were a poet like JOB, I’d write a poem on the subject, and it would start something like this:

Would Adam have painted in the garden?
Mashed a berry, made a stain
to match the crimson of Eve’s lips?
Trained his hands to shape her hips
in clay made soggy by the rain
and set them in the sun to harden?

UPDATE: And JOB accepts the challenge:

Why I No Longer Paint

That which went to make Mona Lisa’s smile
Flash with such brilliant guile
I could not find even in bed with you.
No such passion would do.
I studied – but possessed to no avail.

When I failed to reach beyond the pale skin
To the darkness within,
The much-desired brushstrokes of your hair
Thickened in the air
And blinded my art with aesthetic sin.

You glittered darkly like a stone curio
In chiaroscuro,
Hard and formal, untouchable image –
A feverish mirage
In the looking glass on your clothes bureau.

Candlelight purled your eyes, each a mirror
To read back my error
Of wounded perspective. Later, gold died,
Crimson hardened, blue dried…
Shade and light were muted browns and ochre.

Whatever scope your mattered form revealed
Had your likeness concealed –
No canvas so became a winding sheet.
I left you incomplete,
A sketch that faded as the wash annealed.

My hand was staggering my mind, unable
To dabble with sable
And oil in the secret colors of your life.
The palette, the knife,
The propped easel do little at elbow,

Less at arm’s length, impotent to depict
The simple perfect
Of your eyes. A masterpiece without name,
You broke your faith with frame
And canvas – so I hang in retrospect.

The Comedy Gods Come Knocking on Tina Fey’s Door…

…and she is very much at home. I know, I know – this was Yesterday’s News Today yesterday. But I don’t have TV, and I work Sundays, so sue me. (Minor language alert.)

(Thanks to the New Mexico Nurse for the heads-up.)

David Foster Wallace, RIP

Just found this out from NRO’s Mark Hemingway, who links to a commencement address at Kenyon College:

This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship – be it JC or Allah, bet it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles – is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

David Foster Wallace, RIP

Bird’s Nest In Your Hair

Chapter Thirteen

Tom once had a crush on a girl named Elizabeth. For a while they spent a fair amount of time together, but in the end she had very little interest in him. This sort of thing happens all the time, but he either wasn’t able or didn’t try very hard to forget about her over the years. He slept with a number of different women, but she was always there, from the beginning and thus always the first girl he loved. He probably wouldn’t use the word ‘love,’ but however youthful and immature it might have been, love is exactly what he felt. What he remembered was how beautiful she was. Even after he married Helen, Elizabeth was somewhere there at the back of his mind. What he no longer remembered was how exciting it had been to want to be with a particular woman so much, and how angry he’d been when he realized he’d lost her to someone else. Maybe he thought he might recapture that feeling when he met Julie, but that really wasn’t it. He’d lost something over the years while sleeping around as much as he had. Even if the sex had come relatively easy, he really had become cynical over so many years and so many women. What he saw when he met Julie was a beautiful young woman, but at this stage of his life it seemed like a chance to settle an old score.

Tom didn’t actually recognize this himself. Or ignored what he did recognize. Although it’s true that Tom had begun his career as a womanizer who had gradually developed the ability to ignore whatever guilt he’d naturally felt, with marriage that guilt had begun sneaking up on him.

Tom was actually very lucky when Helen came along, because she had very few illusions about sex. Or at least that’s what she thought about it. She saw sex as something everyone pursues as a part of a more comfortable life. Where Tom saw something to feel guilty about, Helen saw an opportunity. If Tom had said to Helen when he first met her, “I feel a need to tell you about my past; I’ve started feeling guilty about it,” she probably would have laughed out loud. In fact when he realized she was thinking about marriage, he’d thought about saying just that – he liked to be up front with all the women he went with. His awareness about the life she’d led had kept him from saying anything.

Obviously, she had slept with a few men herself over the years. It wasn’t as if Helen had never experienced guilt before, and it certainly wasn’t that she didn’t value honesty as well, but for Helen illicit sex was better understood with a sense of proportion. From her point of view, the dark side of sex involved prostitution; she had known people that had died because of it. Several of her friends had contracted AIDS, and one woman she’d known had been murdered and left in the woods for months before her body was found. It was other people who had good reason to feel guilty, and it really wasn’t sex that was the problem. In her opinion it was sex that bore the brunt of a lot of other problems. Tom had led a fairly comfortable life, for all his experience at Videosyncracy and the women who came through its door over the years. Helen had a different perspective.

Helen was in fact all too aware of the connection between pornography and the other ills of society, some of which she was unfortunate enough to experience herself. That’s why she wanted out. That’s why she had embarked on what seemed to some of her friends and cohorts the ridiculous goal of a more legitimate career in entertainment. Helen didn’t have much in the way of divided loyalties about this. She was loyal to Roger and some of the others she’d been in the business with over the last few years, and she believed in protecting some of the younger girls as well as she could, but she didn’t really consider this in terms of divided loyalties. She had her own ultimate wellbeing to consider and she didn’t see how this concern shouldn’t be everybody else’s as well. This was because she’d spent a lot of time where there was nowhere to go but up.

She was a loyalist and wanted to keep faith with those she had worked with over the years – the girls, especially, but Roger and some of the others in the crew as well. She stayed close to those who had helped her achieve success, and it wasn’t easy to get out of the pornography business after she became so hugely successful. That she could even think of doing so was because she’d done a lot more than most women in the business by taking time to learn skills that would have helped her do something besides porn. Tom was amazed at her ambition; it was ambition that afforded her the opportunity to bail Videosyncracy out of its financial woes. An essential quality of ambition is that it’s very difficult to drop. Tom would have been perfectly comfortable settling into his old routine at the store, or even retiring. This is because Tom wasn’t particularly ambitious; Helen was. Helen thought on a very big scale; as far as earnings go she thought in the terms of a city budget. Years ago she had realized that porn was the safest, quickest way of legally earning that kind of big money.

But her ambition had never been entirely about money. She wanted to get into legitimate moviemaking, and out of porn, but it was a question of what the terms would be. She also had a strong desire to help other people, as we know from the way she approached Tom. She dreamed of setting up a kind of halfway house to help other women transition out of pornography – she figured the men could fend for themselves. She’d gone so far as helping a couple of older girls with down payments on places to live, but that was about as far as it ever went. Helen learned that people have a hard time accepting help on someone else’s terms, even if she herself had terms less in mind than a simple suggestion to a couple of old strippers that they should start planning for a future that didn’t involve swinging around a pole. The trouble was that they just didn’t share her goals. As one woman said to her, “You might be able to get me out of porn, but you’ll never get the porn out of me.”

It didn’t take long for Helen to realize that the person she stood the best chance of helping was herself, and perhaps one other person that she cared enough about to spend most of her time with. After meeting Tom as she browsed around Videosyncracy, and especially after getting to know him through the profile she’d read in the Stranger, she knew that he was the easy going sort of man she liked to be with. It wasn’t difficult to develop a pretty good idea of what it was he wanted out of life and set about making it happen for both of them. She was even able to show Tom the possibility of a future that was more to his liking than the one he’d devised for himself. If she, like Tom, had grown too cynical for love, she still wanted a comfortable life for herself that looked more or less like other people’s lives. She knew from experience that monogamy was an ideal that most people could never live up to, so it was even she that suggested that they not waste too much effort in trying. Even if she felt threatened by other women, she knew that Tom, like most men, had a need for comfort that meant he would keep coming home. And of course Tom was getting older himself, and she knew well enough that there weren’t many women who maintained their appearance as well as she did. So their arrangement worked for a while, as long as Tom wasn’t too serious about the younger women he stayed out with. When Julie arrived on the scene Helen began to feel differently.

After a few months of waiting to see what would happen, she decided to take a more direct approach. When she got back from the gym one morning Tom was in the kitchen eating corn flakes and reading the sports page at the table. He gave her a cheerful enough hello and she responded by walking over and kissing him on the forehead. He was complementary as usual, saying “You look good.” to which she replied, “I feel sweaty. I’m going to jump in the shower.” She didn’t say so, but she was a little nervous and took a little more time toweling herself off while she thought about what she wanted to say. When she came out he was in the living room watching the Vivisection of Vera DVD he’d taken home from the store. She sat down on the other end of the couch and cleared her throat.

“You’re working at the store this afternoon, aren’t you?”

“Yeah,” he said, still watching the screen. “Going in around 1:00.”

“Well…” she had a hard time starting.

Tom didn’t say anything, and Helen stood still waiting for him. After a while he had to say something.

“What’s up, Helen? Nothing wrong, is there?”

“No, no… nothing’s really wrong. But I’ve been thinking about something.” His eyes stuck to the screen as he slowly pulled his head around in her direction. He turned down the volume before setting the remote down on the big, oak coffee table in front of them.

“I know this might seem a little out of the blue, but I’d like to talk about this understanding we’ve had since we got married. The part about other people.” When Tom didn’t say anything she continued. “I’ve been thinking about it a little lately … I guess I just want you to know that I really haven’t been taking advantage of it all that much.”

She paused for a deeper breath. “Actually, I haven’t really been taking advantage of it at all.”

This was hardly a surprise to Tom: it had everything to do with why he was feeling so guilty. She’d hadn’t started crying and she wan’t angry. She didn’t try to manipulate him in any way, but she did tell him exactly what was on her mind. She didn’t give him an ultimatum, because whatever he decided, she wanted it to be a decision he made on his own. And though she didn’t ask, Tom picked up the remote from the table and turned off the television. He may have acted like the greatest husband in the world, but he still liked to think of himself as a good guy.

“I also want to say that I’ve always liked sleeping with you, and it seems like we haven’t been doing much of that lately. I miss it.”

Tom was speechless. What could he say?

“And who knows?” said Helen, “Maybe we’ll want to start thinking about children.”

Children? Had he heard her correctly? Now it wasn’t a question of embarrassment or guilt; he was too stunned to say anything. Helen had never said one thing about it kids before. What could he say?. He wasn’t sure how he felt; a mixture of outrage at being blindsided and guilt because he knew he was in the wrong. Maybe not wrong, according to their prior arrangement, but he’d been doing something that was obviously making Helen unhappy. Which was the more important standard? Helen had done so much for him. Tom was certainly listening, and sat there on his end of the couch as still as a rock. Helen felt her eyes beginning to get a little watery. She reached out toward Tom with one hand and grabbed a Kleenex from a box on the end table with the other.

“I really don’t want you to feel guilty, Tom, because you really shouldn’t feel guilty. We had an arrangement, and it was even my idea to start with. So I really can’t fault you for going out with other girls.”

“Helen . . .” Tom started to say, even if he wasn’t sure what he could say.

“No, no. Really… I mean I want to hear what you have to say, but I want to finish this thought first. If anything, I should be the one feeling guilty because I’m the one breaking the arrangement, or at least talking about changing our lives. I also want you to know that I didn’t originally make the suggestion thinking that I would come back, as I am now, and try to take it back . . .”

She’d been looking down at her hands as she spoke and continued to do so after she’d finished. Some of her hair, still wet from the shower, had fallen down in front of her face. She looked up at him after a moment of silence and pulled some of the hair back behind her ears.

“I wasn’t trying to trap you then, and I don’t want to trap you now. But I can’t help it. I want what I want, and even though I know it sounds almost laughable, I’d like to try being exclusive. I’d like to give monogamy try. I’d like for you to give it a try.”

He was dumbfounded. He kept looking at her knees without knowing what to say. He wondered how much she knew about Julie. He tried looking into her eyes when he felt them looking at him, but he wasn’t able to keep this up very long. It’s hard to look into someone’s eyes without saying anything, even your wife’s. Especially your wife’s, and especially when your wife knows you’ve been seeing someone else, no matter what the arrangement. He didn’t have any idea about what he ultimately wanted; all he really knew was that he was uncomfortable then and wanted to get it all over with as quickly as possible.

“Helen, really … it’s okay. I mean … it isn’t that big a deal.”

He tried to think of something more to say. He thought the best course was to be as definite as possible. And quick. “It’s done. It’s over. Don’t even worry about her.”

“But what about the girl you work with, Tom? What are you going to do about her?”

Tom hadn’t yet considered this. He didn’t want to admit anything, and considering something was tantamount to admitting it.

“I don’t know. I’ll figure something out. I’ll handle it.”

So there was Tom in his office a few hours later, beginning to feel pulled in two different directions. He felt that his loyalties were divided, even if both were only to himself. He tried to look busy with some paperwork at first, walking back and forth between his desk and the big black filing cabinet he kept in the corner, but after about forty five minutes of that he just leaned back in his chair and stared through the big glass picture window at the employees busy behind the counter. It started with a more appreciative consideration of the fix he’d gotten himself into. True, he’d been there before, but for a long time he hadn’t been involved with anyone at work, and definitely not during his tenure as owner. He sat there gently tapping a letter opener into his blotter, brooding. At 3:00 Julie started her shift, and Tom was trying to decide what he could say, if anything.

The truth was that it wasn’t just the awkwardness of the fact that he was sleeping with one of his employees. The difficulty he was experiencing then had more to do with the freedom he’d enjoyed for so long, and the fact that for all his adult life he’d been able to do pretty much whatever he’d wanted to do. Even if he were to break it off with Julie, what would he do in the future? Other women would come along. But he’d made his decision, and who could possibly be a better match than Helen? Especially since she really did seem to have his best interests at heart. He realized then that Elizabeth and all other younger woman represented the past, while his older wife was the future. He was surprised at how happy he was at the thought of this. He could grow old and married, like everybody else.

These happy thoughts didn’t mean he wasn’t anxious about talking to Julie. This would require actually taking a stand – not something Tom was very good at. The clock moved past two o’clock and he distracted himself by helping the employees shelve videos. When he’d finished with the shelving he caught a few minutes of the movie playing on the screen behind the counter: Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita, from 1962. What a joke. At 2:45 he went back into the office and brooded again, waiting for the clock to strike three. When leaving the condo earlier, he’d vaguely imagined asking her aside for a private conversation. It didn’t take him very long to see that this was absolutely impossible. He had no idea what kind of reaction she might have; anything was possible. She would probably get hysterical – she was so young, after all, and so inexperienced in the ways of men and women. She would be devastated, and so she would raise all sorts of hell right there in the store, with all the other employees watching. She wouldn’t even try to maintain appearances. Crying, and going on and on about how much he meant to her. She would very likely become violent. He saw her then, running through the store and pushing over the shelves so that they fell like dominos. Then she walked over to the glass display case and began kicking it, shattering it, screaming and sobbing at the same time. She’d cut her leg, and was bleeding profusely. The employees were all secretly enjoying it, at least until the police were called in, while later they laughed amongst themselves for months, even years afterward. He was in danger of losing the store. He saw then that disgrace was inevitable. He couldn’t make the call; he was paralyzed. He was stuck, and as the cuckoo clock outside the office struck 3:00, he knew it. It was then that Sandy, a gaunt looking girl with long ponytails and granny glasses, stuck her head through the door and said, “It’s for you, boss. Julie on line one.”

He stared at the phone, somewhat confused and more than a little worried. But surely this was better than the scene he’d just contemplated. He thought about it a little more and felt a sense of relief. Perhaps she was sick. He didn’t need to bring up anything now. He couldn’t fire someone who was so sick she had to stay home. That would be heartless. He picked up the phone and said hello.

“Yeah, hello. This is Julie. I think you can tell by now that I’m not coming in. I’m not coming in ever again, cause it’s over, you big jerk. The truth is, you’re a creep, sleeping with a girl that’s half your age. And you’re married, too. You should be ashamed of yourself. What can your wife possibly see in you? And I think you should know that I know about you and my mom. So I won’t be at work anymore, but I expect you to give me a good reference wherever I apply, and if you don’t I’m going to sue your butt off. My dad is a lawyer, and he will make it a very, very big deal.” And then she hung up.

Tom really wasn’t feeling like such a good dog after all. What did Helen see in him? Helen saw what she wanted to see, which was whatever she needed herself. This wasn’t a mark against Helen, it’s just the way people are. What was strange was that for all his experience, he could now see that he wasn’t very good at handling women at all. Not at all. He realized that it was actually the women who were handling him.

Guitar

By Tink McCain, age 4

Speaking of "Southern and Catholic"

This just popped up on my Walker Percy alert.

Hoy Ve!

Via Jay Nordlinger in NRO:

LESS than 24 hours after he became one of the most successful British Olympians of all time, Chris Hoy was sipping champagne and dealing with sponsors’ requests. He was also doing another round of interviews. Told that everyone else had expressed an opinion on his achievement of three gold medals in a single Games, one journalist then asked “what Chris Hoy thinks of Chris Hoy?”

No hesitation. “I think when Chris Hoy refers to Chris Hoy in the third person, that’s when Chris Hoy disappears up his own arse,” he said visibly cringing. “I hope that never happens.”

Wait, didn’t that just happen?

UPDATE, in light of the comments: I probably could have left off my observation on the irony of the response, as it seems to indicate I don’t like the quote as much as I do. I’d rather write that in an off-the-cuff statement he very deftly undercuts the “objective” posture/fallacy of journalism by refusing to take it seriously. And that behind that objective fallacy, there’s a fair amount of academic bullshit that few people have the energy to challenge. Leave it to an athlete!

Of course it’s less complicated than that, but what great fun.

Korrektiv Site Meter Salutes Lickona

The Korrektiv site meter graph of visitors over the past seven days shows a notable middle-finger-like spike where Matthew Lickona (even as he whined about his lack of readers) linked to Quin Finnegan’s Thought Experiment.

Btw, Matthew’s continuing give-and-take with some guy about Catholic fiction is worth another visit back over to Godsbody. The other guy wants to pit Walker Percy against Flannery O’Connor. Matthew begs to differ.

On Moral Fiction…

…is a book by John Gardner. It includes this line: “Art begins in a wound, an imperfection — a wound inherent in the nature of life itself – and is an attempt either to learn to live with the wound or to heal it. It is the pain of the wound which impels the artist to do his work, and itis the universality of woundedness in the human condition which makes the work of art significant as medicine or distraction.”

I mention it because of this profile of Maurice Sendak in the Times:

“That Mr. Sendak fears that his work is inadequate, that he is racked with insecurity and anxiety, is no surprise. For more than 50 years that has been the hallmark of his art. The extermination of most of his relatives and millions of other Jews by the Nazis; the intrusive, unemployed immigrants who survived and crowded his parents’ small apartment; his sickly childhood; his mother’s dark moods; his own ever-present depression — all lurk below the surface of his work, frequently breaking through in meticulously drawn, fantastical ways.

“He is not, as children’s book writers are often supposed, an everyman’s grandpapa. His hatreds are fierce and grand, as if produced by Cecil B. DeMille. He hates his uncle (who made a cruel comment about him when he was a boy); he hates anything to do with God or religion, and Judaism in particular (‘We were the “chosen people,” chosen to be killed?’); he hates Salman Rushdie (for writing an excoriating review of one of his books); he hates syrupy animation, which is why he is thrilled with Mr. Jonze’s coming film of his book ‘Where the Wild Things Are,’ despite rumors of studio discontent.

“’I hate people,’ he said at one point, extolling the superior company of dogs, like his sweet-tempered German shepherd, Herman (after Melville).”

Music to a Boy’s Ears

I’m eight years old and hiking up to Anaroid Lake with Mom and Jean and some of the Jardees. It’s the first time we’ve gone on a long hike even though we’ve been coming to Wallowa for a few years, my family and the Jardees, spending every Memorial Day Weekend here and sometimes a few days in summer too. Last year we took the guided horseback ride up this same trail, and that was a lot of fun, but we’ve never used our own legs like the Indians had to do before they had horses.

Billy is the Jardee closest to my age. He’s a year older than me. And we’re pretty good friends. Sometimes we go down to the Golden Grain and order Cherry Cokes and put them on the Jardee tab. The Jardees are a big Catholic family — five kids — and Billy’s dad is the doctor in town. (We all call him Doc. Even Sally, his wife, calls him Doc.) So they have a tab at the Golden Grain. Any Jardee kid can go in and order a Cherry Coke or an ice cream cone or onion rings — anytime! — and put it on their tab. Sometimes Billy orders coffee, too. He’s the only kid I know that drinks coffee. But it’s always too hot, so he asks the waitress (in her pink uniform and halo of hairspray and small-town cigarette sensuality) for an ice cube. Then he complains the coffee is too cold.

It’s Saturday and we got up early to go on this hike. Dad and Doc stayed behind, sleeping off their hangovers after drinking too much at the Wallowa Lake Lodge last night. The rest of us, Mom and Sally and us kids, got up while the air was still chilly and the grass cool and wet outside our cabin. I put on my favorite red sweatshirt, the one that’s getting a bit frayed in the elbows. Now it’s warming up, though, and we’ve been hiking for about an hour. I’m getting hot, so I take off my sweatshirt and tie it around my waist. I’m in the lead, with Billy on my heels. We’ve left our mothers and sisters far behind, although I look back and see Mary Ellen, one of Billy’s sisters, rounding the corner of the last switchback just as we disappear up the next one.

“Hey you guys,” she calls to us. “Mom says to wait up. You’re too far ahead of everyone.”

Billy slackens his pace behind me. “Come on,” I whisper urgently, gesturing onward and upward with a gesture of the whole arm intended to bring Billy along. “Let’s get a little further ahead and hide and scare the hell out of them when they get here.”

Billy grins his assent and hurries his pace to an uphill trot.

“What’s that?” He calls breathlessly back down the trail. “Sorry, we can’t hear you.”

And up the trail we chug, rounding the corners of one, two, three, four switchbacks before we find a big fallen log suitable for hiding. We bound up on the log and roll over it like Special Forces soldiers on a mission, sprawling into the ferns and grass on the opposite side, sucking air and stifling our exhalations of laughter.
Then we wait.

A grasshopper riffles into the air right over our heads and I feel my body lurch, for a split-second thinking: Rattle Snake.

“Don’t pee in your pants,” Billy says out of the side of his mouth, in that ironic nine-year-old-coffee-drinker way of his.

“Okay, shhh,” I whisper, changing the subject. “Here comes Mary Ellen.” I peek over the top of the log and see Mary Ellen frowning and red-faced. She stops and looks back down the trail, then up the trail right past our log, weighing whether she should try to catch up with us or wait up for the others. She swats a mosquito on the back of her neck and lets out an exasperated sigh. Then she turns and looks right at our log. I duck fast and hold my breath. Billy scrunches his head down, turtle-like, between his shoulders, eyebrows cocked, eyes straining upward.

“Crap,” we hear Mary Ellen say to herself as she approaches. This is the nearest to cussing I’ve ever heard her get. And I take from her tone of voice that – yes! – she is completely unaware of our presence.

She sits down on the log! Bill and I eye each other with wide-eyed and sinister glee. “She sat down on the log!” my eyes say. “This is a gift from the gods,” Billy’s eyes reply, almost tearing up in gratitude. I glance up and see Mary Ellen scratching at the mosquito bite on the back of her neck.

A number of scares and torments pass through my mind. We could tickle her ear with a fern leaf to simulate a spider looking for a cool place to siesta. Or we could growl like hungry grizzly bears. Or we could jump up and roar like mountain lions. I look at Billy and he makes a gesture like a big cat bearing its claws, which confirms our plan of action.

We jump up, roaring with all our might, and Mary Ellen screams, obligingly, at the top of her lungs. It is music to a boy’s ears — and the start of a good day in the woods.

Catholic Letters: The Last Shout

After my last exchange with Greg Wolfe about Catholic letters, I promised to let him finish before responding further. He has finished. So – a brief response:

Let me begin by agreeing with several things Wolfe writes. “Catholics should understand the dangers of a sectarian existence.” Amen. “One might say that the most Catholic vision is the most thoroughly incarnational, the most firmly anchored in common human experience: grace through nature.” One might indeed. “Percy didn’t wait for the culture to be ready for his art, nor did Merton, O’Connor, or Day.” No, they certainly didn’t.

I do take some issue with the following: “The myth of decline is essentially a form of self-pity and ultimately of self-importance. Once again, the notion of belonging to some embattled, saving remnant is a profoundly un-Catholic idea. It is also an excuse for intellectual sloth; if the big, bad world out there is tainted and poisoned by whatever is bad about modernity, why bother to read the signs of the times, to actually sense what’s going on in the culture at large?” I’m not sure it’s so un-Catholic to believe that one belongs to an embattled, saving remnant – viz. Benedict’s reference to the creative minority. What seems un-Catholic is the idea that it’s okay for the remnant to just hide behind the ramparts while the world goes to hell. One must needs be embattled and saving – out there in the world. So we must sense what’s going on in the culture at large.

But here’s my big disagreement: Wolfe cites O’Connor’s use of drowning to convey the meaning of baptism, the martyrdom of Greene’s whisky priest, and the melodrama of Brideshead as examples of the “shouts” and “large gestures” that Catholic writers used in the mid-twentieth century in response to aggressive secularism. These shouts, he writes, “tended to describe an absence – the outline of the missing presence of God.”

Against these wild men and women, he sets Walker Percy. “Percy put it quite bluntly: the world he lived in was not the stark world of his Southern friend Flannery. His wa a South of golf courses and gated subdivisions, not bleak homesteads set off in the woods. For Percy, the absence of God was still an issue, but he felt that it had been submerged by prosperity, that modern belief and despair had become domesticated, anesthetized by shopping malls, new-fangled pills, and inane movies. In such a world, God is not likely to be heard in shouts but in whispers.” Later, he writes that “Percy wrote about affluent Southerners who played golf, not wild-eyed prophets from the backwoods.”

I disagree with the distinction. Let us consider O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” In it, the Misfit enters the life of an ordinary, wretched old woman to teach her about grace by shooting her with a shotgun. His remarkable line: “She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life” is as fine a “shout” as any. Violence and horror breaking through to open the eyes of the spiritually blinded – in O’Connor’s world, this happens all the time. Yes, indeed: O’Connor shouted.

But consider Percy’s last novel, The Thanatos Syndrome. Under the aegis of human happiness and scientific progress, we get a grown man “holding a child aloft as a father might dandle his daughter, except that” – except that he is penetrating her, and has altered her brain chemistry so that she is numb to the horror of it. Consider Lancelot, in which a man, in his rage against the lie that prosperity equals happiness and morals be damned, commits murder in his search for the unholy grail of sin. Consider The Second Coming, in which a father attempts to murder his son with a shotgun his son to save him from the horror of modernity, and in which the son attempts to call God out through attempted suicide. (And in which salvation shows up in the form of a woman subjected to electroshock therapy.) Consider Sutter’s notes on pornography in The Last Gentleman. Heck, the devil himself shows up in Love in the Ruins. There’s plenty of prosperity-soaked golf in Percy, it’s true – but that’s not to say that God operates in whispers. Just as in O’Connor, the spiritual life makes itself known in the midst of violence. Indeed, this is Percy’s great observation in Lost in the Cosmos: that we are happier when life is dangerous and difficult – violence and horror breaking through to open the eyes of the spiritually numb. I don’t think Percy’s God is whisperful.

This is not to say that Catholics must shout, nor even that everybody shouted back then. I rather like Edwin O’Connor’s The Edge of Sadness, and I adore J.F. Powers’ Morte D’Urban, and neither of those books does much shouting. (Indeed, one of the great spiritual battles of Urban is played out on a golf course.) These novels had the rather obvious Catholic earmark of featuring priests as protagonists – men who made God their life’s work. (Which is, in itself, a kind of lowering of religion to the mundane, whispering level. Dispensing grace is your job. Very incarnational.) Having the devil show up would be overkill. Wolfe writes of Alice McDermott’s 1997 novel Charming Billy that “there is little explicit discussion of faith.” Ditto Morte D’Urban and The Edge of Sadness. Instead of martyrdom, Billy’s existence is suffused with “what the Basque Catholic philosopher Unamuno called ‘the tragic sense of life.’” The same could be said of any number of Powers’ mid-century priests.

What I’m saying: I disagree with Wolfe’s notion of trajectory from shouting God to whispering God. We had a whispering God back in the ‘60s, and a shouting God as late as ’87, when Thanatos was published. We still have a whispering God, as Wolfe ably attests. And, I would argue, we still have a shouting God. Read Silence (or Scandal) from Endo – the outline of the missing presence of God is marked out with some pretty large gestures. And Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy features a possible bearer of the stigmata – the bleeding wounds of Christ are a shout if ever there was one, even if their origin is shrouded in mystery (as faith must be). But Endo’s work is set far from America’s shores, and Hansen’s stigmatist story is set, perhaps tellingly, in the past. Here and now in America, it seems to be all whispers and no shouts.

I suspect this is the frustration of those Wolfe is criticizing: we’ve had both shouts and whispers in the past. Why not now? Why must faith always be treated as a whispering thing, instead of a dread matter of life and death, the question upon which everything hinges? The dehumanizing horrors Percy decried have, if anything, multiplied. One need not be a propagandist to engage this culture, any more than Percy was a propagandist to engage his. Writers need merely model Percy et al, as Wolfe notes, by “taking account of their surroundings but not surrendering to them.” (If anything, the venom one may find directed toward religion in general would make the moment ripe, thinks me.) I think maybe this is what Father Neuhaus was getting at when he bemoaned the lack of “bold and imaginative Christian writing” – emphasis on the “bold.” (Which is not to say artless.)

But enough. Wolfe is right that there are really fine Christian writers at work today. (If I were a better man, I would write an essay on why I think Richard Russo’s Straight Man is an excellent example of a modern Catholic novel. Oh, how I love that book.) Go, read them. And if you miss the shouts, write some.

Onion Writers – Walker Percy fans?

This piece is pretty funny:

“Report: More Television Viewers Becoming Desensitized To Drama”

“‘We found that a majority of viewers who watch a normal amount of television—between 32 and 56 hours a week—were relatively unmoved by such personal traumas as divorce, financial disaster, or the death of a child, compared with their reactions to similar events on television,’ said Dr. Fernando Alonso, whose team conducted the study.”

It’s also straight out of Percy. As Amy once noted:

“Binx lives in a world in which people are so disconnected from authentic existence they feel most real when they see some aspect of their lives reflected on the movie screen — their neighborhood used as a set, for example. Or, as we experience it forty years later, to be ‘certified,’ as Percy put it, by being, ever so fleetingly, on television, or smiling out from your very own web page.”

Or this, from Time‘s review of Lancelot: “He tosses off witty remarks about the vacuities of Hollywood and about the strange things that occur when the film crew sets up in his town: ‘What was nutty was that the movie folk were trafficking in illusions in a real world but the real world thought that its reality could only be found in the illusions.'”

Story

This house, situated about two blocks from the one in which I grew up, is for sale. I noticed this during my last visit home. Once, my girlfriend lived there. Once, we made an agreement to rendezvous at 1 a.m. on her back porch. Naturally, I overslept. I woke at 3 a.m., cursed myself, and ran, in my pajamas, to her house. Naturally, she was not on her back porch. So I climbed onto the tiny roof over the front door of her house and leaned over to the leftmost of those second story windows – the one that opened on her room – and quietly called her name. (It was summer, so the window was open.) Her house fronts, on a diagonal, onto a rather busy street in my hometown, such that, even at 3 a.m., the occasional car would bathe me with its headlights. The comic quality of my predicament did not escape me. My girlfriend did not wake up. After about an hour of quietly calling her name, I walked home and went back to sleep.

I am old. The asking price for the house is $129,000.

Waits on Jesus

What follows are the lyrics to Tom Waits’ remarkable song Way Down in a Hole. The genius here, I think, is that he sings/talks with perfect sincerity, and yet, you suspect that may be, and probably is, entirely insincere. But only probably. Precisely the way to present religion in a post-Christian age? An even better version comes as the second song on this concert recording. Thanks to the Not-Ted for the heads up.

When you walk through the garden
you gotta watch your back
well I beg your pardon
walk the straight and narrow track
if you walk with Jesus
he’s gonna save your soul
you gotta keep the devil
way down in the hole
he’s got the fire and the fury
at his command
well you don’t have to worry
if you hold on to Jesus hand
we’ll all be safe from Satan
when the thunder rolls
just gotta help me keep the devil
way down in the hole
All the angels sing about Jesus’ mighty sword
and they’ll shield you with their wings
and keep you close to the lord
don’t pay heed to temptation
for his hands are so cold
you gotta help me keep the devil
way down in the hole.

County or County Equivalent of the Week: Gaston County, NC


Gaston County is located in the South-Central Piedmont of North Carolina. As part of the Charlotte Region, Gaston County offers a slower paced life with all the excitement of the big city right next door.”

Korrektiv readers looking for a respite from the rat race might want to check out the U.S. National Whitewater Center and/or Belmont Abbey.

And for all I know there may be a reader out there (or perhaps even one of our staff writers) who would qualify for this position at Belmont Abbey College. They’re looking for “an individual with a broad, deep knowledge of the Catholic Intellectual Tradition who is able to teach classes on Catholic writers of the Southeast such as Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, on twentieth-century Catholic novelists such as Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, and on Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and the Inklings.” Are you a Catholic intellectual with an advanced degree that’s going to waste? Would you like to have easy access to Gregorian chant and whitewater rafting? Get your application in!