As the sun sets this evening, Holy Thursday, you might give a thought to the beginning of Dante’s Inferno. In the poem’s first canto, Dante awakens in the forest sometime during the night of Holy Thursday — which is to say, on the morning of Good Friday:
Midway in the journey of our life
I cam to myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.
Ah, how hard it is to tell
the nature of that wood, savage, dense and harsh –
the very thought of it renews my fear!
Thus begins his journey. On Easter Sunday morning, he and Virgil emerge from Hell. I wish you all courage and grace on your own paschal pilgrimage this weekend. I will not be blogging on Good Friday. Some posts will appear, but that’s only because I will have written them on Thursday. I will only be approving posts intermittently, so please be more patient than usual. Thanks.
By the way, I strongly, strongly, strongly urge you to listen to the BBC’s radio dramatization of Purgatorio and Paradiso online (Inferno is no longer available). They will both go away tomorrow. If you are planning to read Paradiso with us online in the weeks to come, I can’t think of a better preparation than to listen to Stephen Wyatt’s wonderful play; each episode is only one hour.
(That above painting by Delacroix depicts events in Canto 8 of Inferno.)
UPDATE: I’m going to be on WSJ Live, the live online broadcast of the Wall Street Journal, at noon Eastern time today (Friday), talking Dante. Click through to watch. I’ll be interviewed via Skype from my back porch, here at the Mothership. Watch out for photobombing chickens.
No draft had more impact than the one for “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” Mr. García Márquez’s editor began reading it at home one rainy day, and as he read page after page by this unknown Colombian author, his excitement grew. Soon he called the Argentine novelist Tomás Eloy Martínez and summoned him urgently to the home.
Mr. Eloy Martinez remembered entering the foyer with wet shoes and encountering pages strewn across the floor by the editor in his eagerness to read through the work. They were the first pages of a book that in 1967 would vault Mr. García Márquez onto the world stage. He later authorized an English translation, by Gregory Rabassa. In Spanish or English, readers were tantalized from its opening sentences:
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Col. Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of 20 adobe houses built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.”
A reader sends this jaw-dropping story, appropriately titling it, “Portlandia The Pure”:
Shortly after 1 a.m. Wednesday, a 19-year-old in a hoodie and baggy jeans was captured on a grainy black-and-white surveillance video urinating into a reservoir that slakes the thirst of Portland, Ore.’s 600,000 or so residents. (Cue the disgusted “Ewwwwwwwws!” right here.)
But really, Portland Water Bureau officials, do you have to flush 38 million gallons of potable water for the sake of a cup or two of human urine? That’s how much the bladder comfortably holds, although the bladder in question obviously wasn’t comfortable.
People of Portland: Birds and fish poo and pee in your reservoir water all the time! You waste 38 million gallons of water, and you forfeit all claims to be ecologically friendly, or even ecologically sane.
On the other hand, maybe the urinator is a Mormon, or worse, a Republican. In Portlandia, that changes everything!
Yes, many of the people who make popular entertainment are prominent Democrats. But pulling a lever or writing a check to advance a policy outcome is not the same thing as creating a liberal, or even forward-looking view of the world. Capitalism has something to do with this, and the assumptions about markets that guide Hollywood, which include the ideas that any woman over 35 might as well be dead, and that international audiences hate black actors who are not Will Smith. And narrative conservatism may be an even greater limitation than the pressures to be profitable. Superhero franchises need to keep us invested, so they can only critique their Übermenschen so much. Romantic comedies still hew to their Elizabethan conventions in structuring their payoffs: Marriage, or at least a boyfriend, remains the end goal. A well-landed punch or an artfully-arranged explosion that takes out a bad guy is more pleasurable to watch than a trial, whatever our convictions might be outside the cinema. In culture, the most powerful orientation is neither left nor right, but rather, towards what kinds of story arcs and character beats are satisfying.
That hardly makes culture apolitical or unimportant. Rather, it suggests that we need very different terms to understand what actually winning the culture war would look like, for either side. Conservative culture has receded into joke status not simply because the country has shifted on issues like equal marriage rights or vigilante justice, but because conservative filmmakers, documentarians, and television producers often expect values and ideas to carry the day even in projects where production quality is low, dialogue is clunky, and characters exist only to mouth talking points. Similarly, liberal creators have done a good job of advancing progressive ideas that can be easily expressed in ways that audiences will find pleasurable. But they have been less successful when advancing their principles might require them to train their audiences to approach familiar archetypes, like anti-hero dramas, in new ways.
Could it be that American popular culture represents the worst of liberalism and the worst of conservatism? Yes, it could. But liberals who say, “How were we to know?” don’t get a pass. If human nature doesn’t make you a natural pessimist about these things, you aren’t paying attention.
A friend went last week to the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock, to see an exhibit by the Arkansas painter Carroll Cloar (1913-1993). She brought me back the exhibit catalog, which is mesmerizing. I had never heard of Cloar, who painted scenes and people from the Mississippi Delta. Read what the great Arkansas journalist Paul Greenberg had to say about Cloar’s work. I found online a story a Memphis magazine did about Cloar and his painting. Excerpt:
Cloar was born on January 13, 1913, in Earle, Arkansas, a town of 3,000 some 30 miles from Memphis. His father — a farmer from a line of farmers — was kind but strict and distant. His mother was a devout Pentecostal who, according to Pat, “spent a lot of time praying.” Although he grew up with three brothers and a sister, he led a solitary childhood, exploring the woods and pastures and riverbanks that years later found form in his art. “I was a shy child who seldom spoke at all,” he once described himself, “but I was a keen observer.” And in fact every detail of his rural roots can be found in his paintings — somber-faced relatives, mischievous children, white clapboard houses, and fat harvest moons. Long-johns on clotheslines and men strumming banjos, diners and pool halls and field hands at dusk. And pervading these works are themes that endure through generations — childhood friendships, the wonders of nature, the loneliness of aging, the yearnings of youth.
Pat Cloar sums up the feelings of several others when she says of her late husband’s works, “One of the best things about Carroll was that he retained the ability to observe and think like a child; he kept a sense of playfulness in his work. And it was amazing how he could retain the memories of the past, recall entire conversations.”
One of these conversations resulted in The Arrival of the Germans in Crittenden County, a painting created in 1955. It harks back to World War I, when the grownups in Cloar’s life would sit around and talk about “those Germans,” says Pat. “If they win over there,” the grownups would say, “they’ll be here next.” And Cloar told his wife, “I’d worry about that. I could picture them walking across the cotton fields of Crittenden County. I could see a big long line of them with uniforms and guns. So I decided I’d get me a rock, the biggest one I could find, and put it right under the doorstep. And as soon as one of those Germans came in our yard, I was gonna hit him with that rock.” While the memory amused him, an ominous overtone is seen in the painting; it reflects the dread of a boy awaiting the onslaught of foreign soldiers.
Some of his works also reflect a sense of isolation, as in Alien Child, where the young barefoot Cloar is divided from his family by a long and jagged crevice; and in My Father Was Big as a Tree, which depicts the boy’s feeling for a man about whom he wrote, “[My father] was big and far beyond, and I was never quite able to reach him.”
Please do read that article; you will be able to see some of Cloar’s paintings. Or google “Carroll Cloar” under the images function, and prepare to be dazzled. Cloar once wrote, of his own work:
“If you will go northward in Arkansas, you will see people who might have stepped out of my mother’s album; early American faces, timeless dress and timeless customs. But they are changing too. They are the last of the Old America that isn’t long for this Earth.”
Reading the Cloar exhibit book, I recognize scenes from my own rural Southern childhood. They were passing, and had nearly passed by then, but they had not yet faded. Cloar was a magical realist of the Deep South. I could get lost in his world. Lucky you folks in and around Little Rock!
In June, the Cloar exhibit is moving to the Brooks in Memphis. With any luck, I’ll have the time this summer to make a roadtrip. Maybe you too? Oh, I’m so sorry to report that the Cloar exhibit in Memphis was LAST SUMMER.
For all his simplicity, [Pope Francis] is part bureaucrat, an executive at a desk with a computer and a telephone and an aide—Georg Gänswein, the priest whose services he shares with Benedict. There is plenty of paperwork to get through before the audience, which begins at 10:30. “The irony,” a well-placed Jesuit at the Vatican told me, “is that this pope, great agent of decentralization in the Church, is personally the most centralized pope since Pius the Ninth. Everything has to cross his desk.”
[Benedict] was exhausted when he took office. A joke making the rounds in Rome these days goes like this: Question: Is Benedict interfering in Church governance? Answer: Are you kidding? He didn’t interfere even when he was pope!
Like John Paul, Martini suffered from Parkinson’s disease. Shortly before he died, in 2012, at the age of 85, he gave an interview to a fellow Jesuit. “The Church is tired, worn out in bourgeois Europe and America,” he said. “Our culture has aged, our churches and monasteries are big and empty, the Church bureaucracy is bloated, our rites and vestments are pompous … Prosperity drags us down.” He called for “the pope and the bishops to seek out 12 people from outside the system for administrative positions, people … who will try new things.” He called on the Church to open itself to nontraditional families and poor people. He took the long view. “The Church,” he said, “is 200 years behind the times.”
At the conclave of 2013, Bergoglio was elected pope—and if his pontificate has an agenda, it is the one Martini spelled out from his deathbed. Did Benedict see this coming? Assuredly not. In 2005, Martini, at 78, was considered too old to be elected. It would follow that in 2013, Bergoglio, at 76, should have also been considered too old. But Benedict’s renunciation changed the calculus. Now no older man can be ruled out. Now an older man can be elected pope and work hard for a few years, knowing he is free to resign when his energy flags or when he reckons that he has done all he can.
That’s what Francis is doing—and Benedict knows, better than anybody, that his renunciation of the papacy is what made Francis’s freestyle, judgment-averse pontificate possible. The thought is enough to keep him awake at night. For it is his firm belief that the willingness to suspend judgment is the core of the dictatorship of relativism.
Read the whole thing. It sounds like “God’s Rottweiler” was a pushover as Pope, and the happy hippy Pope is the real tough guy. Fascinating reporting. This quote, from a Vaticanista, is, to me, chilling: “He’s a communicator in the league with Mother Teresa and the Dalai Lama. They say he’s being unclear, but we know exactly what he means.”
Yes, yes, Dalton Conley knows that divorce is supposed to be bad for kids, but that’s almost certainly not true in the case of his children, who, he is pretty sure benefited from his divorce from their mother. Excerpt:
But once he was born at full term, I couldn’t stand living in and out of car seats and felt increasingly isolated with two young babies and a wife who worked late at the lab. So when NYU offered me a big raise and sweetened the pot with tenure, I took the opportunity to return to my hometown, where I had lots of support in the form of family and lifelong friends. Natalie, on the other hand, stayed on at Yale, commuting to Connecticut from New York for chunks of the week.
I suppose the silver lining was my own research that showed that when moms worked outside the home, there was more gender equality among the offspring. That is, in so-called traditional families, daughters lagged behind sons. But in working-mother households, the girls achieved just as much as the boys. As a father of a daughter, this was heartening. Though I cringed when she later asked her mother to be “normal” and stay home to bake cookies.
Our commuting arrangement certainly put a strain on us—and not merely because she often had to be away at Yale for three days a week to teach in addition to whatever travel we both had for conferences, lectures, and other work projects; it also took me a good three years to accept our respective roles in our non- traditional marriage. I was the “mom” who was home with the kids, doing dishes and pediatrician appointments, and she was the 1950s “dad”—the fun one who made them laugh and did entertaining activities with them on weekends. Gender psychology aside, it felt like juggling kitchen knives and diapers.
Well, most parents have been there. But most parents, one would think, but the needs of their children ahead of their own. Not Dalton Conley, who began to think about divorce:
There is so much cultural heat surrounding the issue of divorce that even academic studies can get a bit singed. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of studies showing that kids from divorced families do worse on scores of outcomes. The problem with all of those research papers is that we can never know the counterfactual: What if those particularparents who divorced had actually stayed together? This is an entirely different sample of folks from the parents in the data who did in fact stay together—hearkening back to Tolstoy’s famous dictum.
No, we must confine our inquiry to the ones who did divorce in our sliver of the quantum universe. Would their kids really be better off if they had stayed together in some other quantum state—fighting and yelling and tiptoeing around?
You know where this is headed. The appalling thing is that Conley, a leading social scientist, uses science to justify what he wanted to do in the first place: get out of his marriage, and to convince himself that he’s doing it for the sake of improving the lives of his children. I’d say this essay is a pretty good argument against taking anything he has to say about parenting in his new book (from which it was adapted) seriously.
Incidentally, Dalton Conley is a crazy person. From a 2003 article in The New York Times:
Under the grayish fluorescent lights of the Civil Court clerk’s office on Centre Street, Dalton Conley made his request: if no one objected, he wanted to change his 4-year-old son’s name to Yo Xing Heyno Augustus Eisner Alexander Weiser Knuckles Jeremijenko-Conley.
It is the longest name in the city’s files, at least according to the unofficial tally kept by clerks at the office, where any New Yorker can go to legally change his or her name. (Each borough has an office providing the service.)
The boy’s name — which technically was just lengthened, not changed — was the talk of the office for a few days this summer after Mr. Conley made the application. But by the time he returned, several weeks later, to pick up the judge’s order of approval, the clerks had accepted it as just another of the weird, intimate fragments that surface when one tinkers with a name, that most basic measure of identity, in a city famous as a place to remake oneself.
As for Mr. Conley, the father of Yo Xing Heyno Augustus, etc., his son’s names all have specific intentions, from honoring deceased ancestors to upsetting common expectations.
”I had wanted to do ethnic disassimilation,” said Mr. Conley, who is a sociologist at New York University. ”So getting this white kid and giving him a name, Yo Xing, that belongs to this ethnicity that’s really not his, it evens the score for the Howard and Robert Chins.”
Mr. Conley and his wife, Natalie Jeremijenko, originally gave their son, who is called Yo for short, four middle names, and waited until now to append the three others. The son suggested two of them, including the name of his father’s childhood dog, Knuckles. ”I have my limits,” Mr. Conley said. ”I wouldn’t name my kid after a dog.” Still, he named his 5-year-old daughter E, after the letter, so she could complete the name when she got older.
Again and again I say unto you: do not take parenting advice from this man! Some kinds of crazy are reserved only for Ph.D.s.
Lincoln Public Schools officials apologized Wednesday for a flier about “turning bullies into buddies” that went home with Zeman Elementary fifth-graders, prompting complaints from parents and angry comments on Facebook.
“That list of 9 rules for dealing with bullies was hands down the worst advice any person could give to another,” said one message on the LPS Facebook page.
Zeman Principal Donna Williams sent an electronic message to families apologizing for the flier, and the district posted the apology on its Facebook page.
Among other things, the flier advises not telling on bullies because “the number one reason bullies hate their victims is because the victims tell on them.” The flier goes on to say, “Telling makes the bully want to retaliate. Tell an adult only when a real injury or crime (theft of something valuable) has occurred. Would we keep our friends if we tattled on them?”
Among the twisted advice the brochure gave to the kids:
Treat the person who is being mean as if they are trying to help you. No matter how insulting or mean they may sound, be grateful and think they really care about you.
Do not tell on bullies. The number one reason bullies hate their victims, is because the victims tell on them. Telling makes the bully want to retaliate. Tell an adult only when a real injury or crime (theft of something valuable) has occurred. Would we keep our friends if we tattled on them?
Message to children: If you are being tormented by others, it’s your fault.
This is so over the top you have to wonder what kind of sadomasochist teacher or staff member came up with it.
Alex Wilgus surprises me with his flattering comparison of Your Working Boy to Orestes Brownson. Turns out it’s really a short essay in praise of the blogger as intellectual work-in-progress. Excerpt:
We live in searching times, but ours is not the first. Instead of deriding the insecure footing of searchers, Lasch gives us leave to appreciate the oft-derided intellectual life of people outside the academy. After all, having the guts to publish one’s thoughts is a good way to test them out. It’s a sort of populist education that can easily lead to demagoguery if one is unreflective, but if one is smart, honest, and has a healthy receptivity to criticism, one may achieve a career like Brownson’s or Dreher’s and produce with little other than a sharp mind and a small publication, a real contribution to intellectual history. Sure, one could measure one’s thoughts more thoroughly before declaring oneself, thus saving oneself from a good deal of derision, but not everybody is so settled on one’s own philosophy and tradition as a Ross Douthat or a Jonathan Chait.
That’s really kind to a TMI typer like me. Thanks