|The Goliard Blog
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25 July 2002
Bad organ! Bad! Gregory Popcak has posted a thoughtful response to some of my comments on music and good taste. It would seem that we are very much in agreement on most points, however fun it might be to clash a bit anyhow. (It is, after all, through such constructive criticism that much stronger and sounder propositions are born.)
I was particularly glad to see Popcak drop his cudgel and join the ranks of us snooty elitists for a moment as he colorfully denounced the electronic faux organ:
One final note on organs. Most churches do not have pipe organs. Most churches have ghastly pseudo-organ sythesizer thingys that would be better off placed in an ice rink than a church.…I would argue that most of the electronic dreck that passes for organs these days are not organs at all. These quasi-sythesizers DO NOT have pride of place, according to Musicam Sacram. I would rather a musician play almost any real instrument than these hideous things. In fact, my own opinion—and yes, it is an opinion—is that the inventor of these abominations before God should be taken forthwith to the place of execution and hung by the neck until dead.
Does this mean I'll have to scrap the Funk Mass for Hammond B3 Organ and Choir that I've been working on? Dang.posted by The Goliard | Link |
You shall not crucify good taste upon a cross of cheese… An e-mail from Gregory Popcak reminds me that I really ought to say something about his concept (proposed by a reader of his) of the "sin of aesthetic pride". He develops the idea in a post responding to a reader's note about a lady who overcame her impulse to condemn, and instead perceived the love behind, a retreat center's "horrible little salads laid out with tiny American cheese crosses placed carefully on top of each". It is a good story, and I agree that it would have been wrong for the lady to look down her nose at people who were trying their best yet did not succeed in rising above the tacky. I also agree that the "sin of aesthetic pride" has the makings of a valid concept.
However, I also believe that it is all too easy to take that idea and use it as an anti-elitist stick for beating up on anyone who continues to insist that there are such things as good taste and bad taste, and that the former is to be preferred. While a feeling of superiority is never a virtue, there are other, legitimate responses to tackiness which I fear the idea of "aesthetic pride" could also be used to suppress:
1) The honest recognition of tackiness and kitsch for what they are.
2) Belief in the idea that good taste is beneficial to the community and to the individual, and that bad taste can be harmful.
3) Gentle and courteous efforts to help people gravitate towards good taste and avoid bad taste. (Even if we are to graciously hold our tongues, and even be touched by the efforts of those who give us American cheese crosses, that still does not mean that we should be compelled to shout "More, please!")
4) Forthright condemnation of those who should know better, and/or put themselves in the position of professional purveyors of art or music or suchlike, but produce crummy stuff anyway. (Marty Haugen! Paging Marty Haugen!)posted by The Goliard | Link |
Charisma and guitars. A few thoughts on Gregory Popcak's blast against criticism of the Charismatic movement over on Heart, Mind & Strength Weblog. (Please note that, however strongly I may make some of my points, I respect Popcak as a fellow Catholic of good will from whom I could learn much.)
• Yes, there was a time when glossolalia (praying in tongues) occured during the Gloria. Sorry that made you uncomfortable…but the fact is tongues, along with several other, "tertiary gifts of the spirit" were listed by Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas wrote about lot of things. That doesn't mean that any of them necessarily belong at Mass, especially when they are of as dubious worth as speaking in tongues. The upside of this practice is far from clear; while my Evangelical background taught me plenty of dangers. Among them: pride among those who are able to speak in tongues, embarrassment among those who are not, people pretending that they are able to speak in tongues in order to fit in, intense discomfort caused to any in attendance who possess a more restrained disposition, a wrenching of the whole focus of the Mass away from the Sacrifice taking place on the altar, and finally the potential that those who believe they are praising God in tongues will actually be blaspheming God in a language they do not understand. (This last has actually happened, and should stand as a warning to us of the danger of dabbling in realms of the spiritual world which are beyond our knowledge and competence.) All in all, I fear this practice does much more to divide Catholics from each other than unite them; and potentially divisive practices should only be indulged when they serve some greater imperative, which I do not believe glossolalia does.
• "But in the final analysis, the answer is De Gustibus." Not quite. In the final analysis, the question is, "Is this celebration of the Mass faithful to the rite established by the Church, and the rubrics laid down thereof?", and "de gustibus" is not an appropriate answer to that question. Now it is true that there are many choices, aesthetic and otherwise, available to those celebrating liturgies in the contemporary Roman Rite; but on most occasions when I see a word slapped in front of "Mass"—as in "Charismatic Mass" or "Youth Mass" or even, God help us, "Clown Mass"—I suspect that what is going on is not the judicious and respectful use of those options but the attempt to shoehorn an entirely different sensibility and type of celebration into the structure of the Mass. It is the difference between asking "What music shall we use for the Gloria?" and "Where shall we put the glossolalia? Oh, the Gloria might work." All this is not to say that all Charismatic practices should be excluded from Catholic practice; but the rightful place of many of them is in a prayer meeting, not the Mass itself.
I will also note in passing that, while the Charismatic movement has its share of supporters among converts from evangelical Protestantism, there are many who find the importing of an evangelical sensibility into Catholic practice to be a slap in the face after having undertaken to swim the Tiber at considerable personal cost. Perhaps this is not the most perfectly rational or mature response, but it exists on a visceral level and Charismatic enthusiasts should at least be aware of it.
• Solemnity, formality, and an observance of traditional forms are not bad things. At the risk of committing gross anti-Americanist heresy, I would even argue that they are necessary things. A Mass devoid of these factors is much less of a Mass. Furthermore, I believe that with the distraction and noise and busyness and overstimulation of American life, what the soul is in most desperate need of encountering when a person of today steps into church is quietude and contemplation. Now individuals may well rebel against a contemplative atmosphere at first…a contemporary phenomenon which Alanis Morissette deftly exposed in "All I Really Want" when she sang "Why are you so petrified of silence? Here, can you handle this?" and then stopped the music. (I try not to make a habit of citing pop music in my arguments, but that particular bit of Morrissette is too inspired to pass over.) All this does not mean that the liturgy need be grim—after all, there is definite joy to be found in solemnity, and in formality, which we would do well to rediscover.
• The only question one should ask in confronting spiritual exercises—whether Tongues or the Divine Office—is, "Is this exercise intended to point me toward a deeper encounter and relationship with God." If the answer is "yes" then we need to count ourselves in, no matter how uncomfortable that particular form of worship and prayer makes us. This formulation is too imprecise. Intent is not the correct measure of the propriety of a form of worship. I have met people who embarked upon everything from occult practices to wanton sexual behavior to the Jehovah's Witnesses believing that the exercise was intended to point them towards God. The intent must be checked against many things, most importantly the Church's teachings and traditions and regulations. What is more, we need not "count ourselves in" even if the practice passes all tests of orthodoxy. The Church has always made available a wide range of practices and devotions and traditions and even rites to the faithful, and it is no sin to personally forego a whole raft of them because one is not comfortable with them. The insistence that Latin Mass devotees must not only accept the existence of, but be willing to participate in and learn to love, Charismatic celebrations is an example of a pernicious phenomenon I call "compulsory inclusiveness", and goes too far.
I would like to say a few more words in defense of feeling uncomfortable. In our day feelings are practically worshipped, compelling us to take the most extreme caution to avoid stepping on anyone's toes. Unless the feeling involved is one of discomfort with the tidal wave of feeling and emotion and exhibition itself…this feeling is free to be ignored at best, ridiculed at worst. We uncomfortable people could more easily tolerate being told to buck up, loosen up, deal with it, and grow to love it if we weren't the only ones that people dared say this to—but as it is, the whole business is rather galling. I would also suggest that sometimes discomfort is a useful warning sign, a canary in the mineshaft that we ignore at our peril. Finally, we should be wary of the fetishizing of "pushing the boundaries" and of the desire to continually push people "out of their comfort zones", as they are both hallmarks of the culture of perpetual adolescence.
• Taste is not the arbiter of faith. Truth is. A pithy statement to be sure. But bad taste gives rise to bad liturgy, and bad liturgy is corrosive of the health of a parish and the morale of individual Catholics, and in extreme cases of the Faith itself. Also, this writer is one who stubbornly holds to the proposition that there is a difference between good taste and bad taste, and that the former should be encouraged and the latter discouraged. This is not a popular position to hold in our leveling age—in fact, Rod Dreher holds it responsible for much of the passionate loathing of Martha Stewart—yet I am sure that a fair number of fellow "granola conservatives" will be with me on this.
• A final note about guitars, since Popcak and David Alexander both made mention of them. It seems to me that guitars could be quite lovely in the liturgy if they were played in a melodic classical style, and/or with the noble simplicity of that fabled occasion when "Silent Night" was first sung. Unfortunately, I have never been privileged to hear such a thing in church. What we get instead when guitars enter the sanctuary is what seems, to my non-musician's ears, to be an insipid STRUM-a-strumma-strumma-STRUM-a-strumma-strumma that turns the guitar into a low-rent folk rhythm instrument. And overbearing rhythm instruments have no place in any liturgical celebration, in my opinion. This is just another example of how the "folk" movement in liturgical music has provided shelter to, and an excuse for, wretched composing and substandard musicianship.posted by The Goliard | Link |
Today's selection is a poem written out West where I grew up. It is from Common Ground by John Daniel, a book published some time ago by an obscure press in Idaho (at the offices of which I picked up a leftover copy of this book for free), and thus almost certainly unfamiliar to the readers of The Goliard Blog. Perhaps most of you would have been quite content to have remained unaware of this poet (the quality of the poems in the book is uneven), but the following piece called to my Western soul, deep in its exile here in the Deep South:
ONE PLACE TO BEGIN
— John Danielposted by The Goliard | Link |
24 July 2002
Yes, there is a Wednesday Book for today! I have chosen an old favorite which has some bearing on the urban-environment part of the "granola conservative" discussion: The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs.
Jacobs was one of the first to speak out against Modernist architecture and city planning back in the 1950s and 1960s. It is difficult to guess whether the outrage her criticisms attracted—and still attract—had more to do with her defiance of the orthodoxies of the day or the fact that she dared to do so without possessing any sort of credentials in the field (Jacobs studied at Columbia for two years or so but never took a degree).
Jacobs' urban humanism infuses this book and causes her to defend person-friendly environments against various mischief-makers with Great Ideas; and sometimes this defense relies on such simple and common-sense observations that one wonders how the Modernists ever got away with ignoring or rejecting them. This passage from Jacobs' chapter on sidewalks is a good example:
This last point, that the sight of people attracts still other people, is something that city planners and city architectural designers seem to find incomprehensible. They operate on the premise that city people seek the sight of emptiness, obvious order and quiet. Nothing could be less true. People's love of watching activity and other people is constantly evident in cities everywhere. This trait reaches an almost ludicrous extreme on upper Broadway in New York, where the street is divided by a narrow central mall, right in the middle of traffic.…Eventually Broadway reaches Columbia University and Barnard College, one to the right, the other to the left. Here all is obvious order and quiet. No more stores, no more activity generated by the stores, almost no more pedestrians crossing—and no more watchers. The benches are there but they go empty even in the finest weather. I have tried them and can see why. No place could be more boring. Even the students of these institutions shun the solitude. They are doing their outdoor loitering, outdoor homework and general street watching on the steps overlooking the busiest campus crossing.
In her Introduction to the book, Jacobs takes several excellent shots at the Modernist city planners she calls "Utopians" and the rotten results of their labors, as in these excerpts:
There is a wistful myth that if only we had enough money to spend…we could wipe out all our slums in ten years, reverse decay in the great, dull, gray belts that were yesterday's and day-before-yesterday's suburbs, anchor the wandering middle class and its wandering tax money, and perhaps even solve the traffic problem.
But look what we have built with the first several billions: Low-income projects that become worse centers of delinquency, vandalism and general social hopelessness than the slums they were supposed to replace. Middle-income housing projects which are truly marvels of dullness and regimentation, sealed against any buoyancy or vitality of city life. Luxury housing projects that mitigate their inanity, or try to, with a vapid vulgarity. Cultural centers that are unable to support a good bookstore. Civic centers that are avoided by everyone but bums, who have fewer choices of loitering place than others. Commerical centers that are lackluster imitations of standardized suburban chain-store shopping. Promenades that go from no place to nowhere and have no promenaders. Expressways that eviscerate great cities. This is not the rebuilding of cities. This is the sacking of cities.
Cities are an immense laboratory of trial and error, failure and success, in city building and city design. This is the laboratory in which city planning should have been learning and forming and testing its theories. Instead the practitioners and teachers of this discipline (if such it can be called) have ignored the study of success and failure in real life, have been incurious about the reasons for unexpected success, and are guided instead by principles derived from the behavior and appearance of towns, suburbs, tuberculosis sanatoria, fairs, and imaginary dream cities—from anything but cities themselves.
Take a look at The Death and Life of Great American Cities the next time you are at the bookstore…or at Amazon, where a generous 58 sample pages are posted. Also of interest on the Web are some fairly recent interviews with Jacobs, one of which can be found at Reason magazine and another at James Howard Kunstler's website.posted by The Goliard | Link |
22 July 2002
Somebody up there (at National Review, that is) likes me. Your humble author got a great letter last night from none other than Rod Dreher, the originator of the whole "granola conservatives" discussion. He had quite a bit to say about the objection (raised in several places) that granola-ism is too expensive and even may have something to do with Boomer materialism. With his kind permission, I will quote at length:
I should begin by pointing out that I'm all of 35—that means Generation X—and supporting a stay-at-home wife and child on a journalist's salary, in New York City. My wife's choosing to stay at home is part of our so-called granola-ness; the sacrifice she's making of her career, and that we're both making in terms of lower purchasing power, is something we're doing because we believe it's for the good of our son (and for the Good). I have to laugh when I read some of these commentators acting as if we and people like us are living like the cast of "thirtysomething." Most of the conservatives I know who share our values are not getting rich, not by a long shot. You should read the e-mail I'm getting from all over the country, particularly from Red America. Most of the crunchy-rightists seem to be normal conservative folks in most respects; it's just the choices they've made in terms of lifestyle are distinctly countercultural. One of my favorite letters came from a homeschooling Presbyterian (PCA) mom living in the Southwest. She and her husband, both with professional degrees, have a whole bunch of kids, all of whom are voracious readers (they don't have a TV, except to watch videos). They eat simpler, healthier meals, staying away from expensive processed junk in the supermarkets. She and her husband are GOP activists, and were delegates to the 2000 Republican convention. Just about everybody in their town is conservative, but this family feels alienated from many of them, because, she says, most of these folks are heavily into the secular materialistic "keeping up with the Joneses" lifestyle. This conservative family doesn't consider that really living. They're so-called "granola conservatives." Do they sound like indulgent yuppies? Hardly. They just don't want to be part of the rat race that so many Americans, Republicans and Democrats alike, have joined. And they've dropped out, so to speak, for deeply conservative reasons.
As far as this lifestyle costing more, I can't speak for housing, because the possibility of buying a home is unthinkable in NYC. When we eventually leave, we'll probably end up having to settle in some ugly suburb too, for financial reasons. But that doesn't mean we have to like it, or call it beautiful. I think most people living the crunchy-right lifestyle do what they can afford to, and keep striving to do better with what they're given. I don't believe this lifestyle, inasmuch as something so inchoate can be called a "lifestyle," automatically means you have to spend more money. I suppose it depends on where you live, but we buy our vegetables from farmer's markets as well as subscribe to the organic co-op, and we pay no more than we did when we bought them at the supermarket (and the taste is so much better). We buy grains in bulk from the health food store, and save a bundle.
Anything worth doing well is going to take a little more time and effort. If people genuinely don't have time to do the kinds of things that granola conservatives tend to embrace, well, so what? It doesn't make them bad people. But my impression is that a lot of conservatives who are being so flip about condemning the crunchy-right are doing so based on stereotypes that have little to do with how many of us actually live. I mean, just because I might rub shoulders with liberals or obnoxious Bobos at the farmer's market doesn't make it wrong or foolish to go buy fresh vegetables grown by family farmers. Nor does it make buying crap factory-fresh vegetables at the supermarket an act of virtue.
Dreher's points are very well taken. I think it is important, in this discussion, to distinguish between granola-esque Bobo behavior, which I skewered in prior posts; ideological liberal granola-ism, which I am no fonder of; and the true granola-conservative attempt to live simply and genuinely, which I admire. At no point did I have Dreher pegged as a big-spending Bobo, and hope he did not think I was presuming him to be such.
The concept of dropping out of the rat race is key, I think, to the whole granola-conservative idea. If one is to really live, I believe it is essential to disconnect somewhat from everything from the daily chase after more and more possessions to the continual background noise of advertising, junk news, and other network-television pablum. Our society has a huge surplus of shallow and materialistic people and it takes a conscious effort to adopt a different mode of life. I believe that those who make this effort—and in doing so try to raise future generations in a better environment and teach them better values—are acting heroically, and are our best hope for preventing our country from following the Romans and others down the well-defined trajectory of societal decline. (Call me a pessimist, or even just a befuddled classicist, but in my view the United States is imperial Rome, and September 11th was the first of the big barbarian invasions.)
Funny, but I find that in many of the ways Gen X granola cons live, we're emulating the ways of our grandparents. I was shelling peas from the co-op the other night, and both my wife and I started thinking about our small-town grandmothers down South, and how they do the same thing (or used to do, in my late grandmother's case). Our moms never really embraced that kind of lifestyle, so my wife and I are going back to our roots, in a way.
I agree that much of what we "Generation X" conservatives do involves trying to recover the best of what our grandparents thought and did. With creativity and flexibility and wit we can start to put our own spin on these things, and cultivate a contemporary culture that does not depend on slavish obedience to either the zeitgest or the way we think things were in the "good old days" (many afficionados of the Latin Mass, such as your humble author, have learned the hard way how the latter can turn out badly). But however much we succeed in being creative and unique, the work of our generation has still mostly been, and will continue to mostly be, a work of recovery and restoration after the wanton societal destruction visited on us by our immediate forebears.
I don't know that they have Sonics up in Yankeeland, but every time Mrs. Dreher and I visit fambly in Texas or Louisiana, we cannot pass one by without stopping. The double-meat No. 1 (hold the onions) is very heaven, and Mrs. Dreher's liquid intake during those sojourns subsists largely of Route 44 cherry limeade by the bucket. Granola shmamola, gimme my Tater Tots.
This is iron-clad proof that the Drehers are good granolas, not bad granolas. Bad granolas would be either too snobby, too health-freaky, too dogmatic, or too humorless to ever be caught dead near a Sonic. (Or if they did ever indulge in tater tots and a cherry limeade, they'd never admit to it.)
As for me, my favorite good-bad can't-resist-it-when-I'm-visiting-family food is Taco Time's Crisp Meat Burrito. None of my pants would fit if we had Taco Time in this part of the country. (It's bad enough that we've got Krispy Kreme.)posted by The Goliard | Link |
My regular daily features have somewhat fallen by the wayside due to the tyranny of Real Life, but I do have something to chuckle about this Monday. One of my very favorite parts of Britain's The Spectator is the back-page "Your Problems Solved" by Mary Killen. "Dear Mary…" is way, way better than any American "Dear…" that I'm aware of, in large measure because the writer combines the traditional British need to be indirect when in a sticky situation with a nicely dry British wit. Here are a few choice questions and answers from recent issues:
Q. For nearly 40 years we have enjoyed the rewarding friendship of the owners of one of England’s finest stately homes. We have stayed with them on a number of occasions but now feel that we simply cannot face another visit. They will not hear of us staying in a nearby hotel so, despite invitations, we have so far managed to make excuses. The reason? Their guest-wing beds were probably installed in the 1920s and have not been renewed. Consequently they are completely concave and one endures a wretched night. I simply cannot bring myself to mention this fact since I do not wish to hurt their feelings. Do you have any suggestions as to how this unhappy situation could be resolved?
A. Simply buy a couple of futons and, on arrival, have them brazenly carried into your room along with your luggage. You can roll these out and sleep there quite happily within the supplied bedlinen. Do not be surreptitious in any way. If questioned by staff, explain, ‘It’s a new form of yoga we are doing where we try to sleep with the spine extended to its maximum capacity.’ This would be well within the bounds of credibility and no offence could be given.
Q. At this time of year I am invited to a number of drinks parties in people’s gardens. I do want to go to the parties but at my age I do not wish my face to be scrutinised too closely in the unforgiving early-evening light. People keep urging me to come outside. What excuse can I give for remaining inside the house and chatting to people?
A. Simply wear unsuitably high shoes. You can then say, ‘I’d love to come outside but I’m wearing these ridiculous shoes and I might trip up.’
Q. I live in a converted house in Chelsea. One of the other occupants of the building, a generous-spirited man who has lived here for many more years than I have, has decided, without consultation, to make the ‘common parts’ more welcoming. He is a good soul and clearly thinks he is doing everyone a terrific kindness, but unfortunately he has rather depressing taste in reproduction antique furniture, knick-knacks such as sauce boats filled with stale potpourri, and china fluttering birds that look as though they have just landed. Since I work in the field of design and aesthetics, I worry that my visitors may mistake his taste for my own. How can I tactfully suggest that the common parts be restored to the aesthetic no-man’s land they once were?
A. Ring round your mature friends and arrange to borrow a couple of their growth-spurted teenage children. Ideally they should be six foot three inches tall, with acne, uncoordinated limbs and a general sense of presence. Turn up with these youths at your neighbour’s door. Complete with rucksacks and sports equipment, they should be big enough to fill the doorframe. Announce that the three of you are there to apologise for the destruction that the youths have just wreaked as they passed through the common parts—potpourri spilt everywhere, chipped china birds, etcetera. Explain that since these youths and their friends will now be visiting you on a regular basis, you insist, no, you absolutely insist, and it is no trouble, that they be allowed to carry all the precious objets back into his apartment right this minute before any further damage can be done.
Q. I have a dear friend who I have noticed, on visits to her flat, is snacking more and more. She does this in an absent-minded way and I feel I should point out to such a friend that the result of this increased intake of calories is becoming ever more apparent. The trouble is that she is hypersensitive and I would not like to hurt her feelings. What should I do?
A. Next time you go to her flat remove the lamp from her fridge. For atavistic reasons, people do not like groping in dark caverns. The foodstuffs in the refrigerator will soon deteriorate, also helping to erode the connection between food and pleasure. Since her heavyweight lethargy will ensure that she does not get around to replacing the bulb, you will soon see the natural correction of your friend’s new habit.posted by The Goliard | Link |
21 July 2002
SUNDAY GRANOLA SPECIAL
I've got mail. Mark Byron was kind enough to e-mail me regarding my earlier "granola conservative" posts. He figures that we are pretty much in agreement, but cautions that if government action were employed to fight sprawl (as it probably would have to be), the cure might turn out to be worse than the disease. (He mentions some of the perverse results of Portland, Oregon's regulatory efforts as an example.)
Indeed. In law school, I was fortunate to have a couple of professors who were law-and-economics gurus, and they taught the nirvana fallacy, the law of unintended consequences, and other aspects of the problem of regulation quite well. (My very favorite law professor, Mike DeBow, maintains an excellent, huge links page here. Don't miss the "Diversions" link at the very bottom.)
Also, having been born in Corvallis, Oregon, and grown up there and next door in Idaho, I'm fairly familiar with the problems that Portland's regional planning initiatives have visited on that unique town. (So long as they don't do anything to ruin Powell's Books, however, all will not be lost.) Of course, Portland's very worst civic problem—that the "Jailblazers" have become a scandal and everybody hates them, whereas in the days of Bill Walton the team was the city's greatest pride and even helped define what Portland was all about—can't really be pinned on government.
Getting back to the subject at hand, I think that Byron and a few others have shed some light on where many of us granola conservatives get stuck on the issue of our towns and cities. I can rail against the un-human and criminally ugly physical environment in which Americans live nowadays, and wax poetic about the humane values that need recovering, all I want (and I surely did plenty of this below), but by the end of these meditations I fear that I have simply produced a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing, because I don't know what to offer in terms of solutions.
Other than this long-term one: Let us teach our children, both in and out of the classroom, to be humane, fully-realized human beings, and cultivate in them enough of an aesthetic sense and historical perspective and vision of community that when they become the next generation of planners and architects and developers and businessmen and homebuyers, they will refuse to throw up, say, corrugated-metal-box churches (most popular here in the South among Baptists) just because they are cheap and efficient, and will desire of their own free will to produce something more edifying and enduring and real than strip malls, big-box stores, and clusters of McMansions in exurban "gated communities" (the "gates" of which are useless, while the "community" is nonexistent).posted by The Goliard | Link |