Monday, May 28, 2007

Irish Heritage vs. Bottom Lines

This snap (straight outta Bono and his pals' own hard teen streets o' Ballymun) sent by Lee to me via her Hibernian pals sums up much about how we postmoderns view Irish culture, mingling those pagan fertility festivals with Catholic ritual processions and eating the dead god in sacred groves with sanctified garbing of young maidens. First Communion meets Riverdance if not Flashdance. Queen of the May or the Moy. The other day I read of the Archer School in Brentwood having a mysterious May Day pole erected on its lawn without warning or explanation the past few years. The paper called it delicately a "Celtic renewal" symbol.

Fintan O'Toole speaks in the Irish Times about delicate reticence regarding bureaucratic Irish attitudes towards the real remnants of a bastardized and blessed pre- and once thriving Christian and now coldly mercenary, post-Christian culture in an Irish academic climate chilly to its fluid multiculturalism. An exchange across Europe and the Atlantic, not to mention if you read Bob Quinn the Mediterranean and North Africa. A trade of ideas and goods millennia older than the EU or "diversity."

I heard Daithi O hOgain at the IASIL in Debrecen a few years back dazzingly discuss ancient Irish texts with flair matching O Corrain for O'Toole. I agree that our intellectual leaders can draw connections that make the recondite relevant. This is ignored by bean-counters running our universities as if they are MBA generators and nothing more makes our best colleges into diploma mills. Not to mention the rush to mediocrity in those colleges not in the top tiers. First the American schools opened campuses and admissions post-WWII out of a mingled ideal of class and race access beyond those with the "gentleman's 'C'" and the silver spoon. But this now means we prop open the doors to career-oriented education, not only where it has the right to be, and I should know from where I teach, but in the liberal arts and humanities in traditional research bastions. What goes for electrical engineers and accountants should not go for classics majors and Sanskrit scholars. Yes, I can in my spare time study Irish in all its forms in my own time, but without the grants and resources and leaves and seminars that a university provides those "professing" advanced knowledge in a field that they in turn advance by research and conferences and publications and teaching, scholarship stagnates. This is already the case in many areas of medieval studies, at least from what I have been told by professors in the fields in which I was trained but am not now employed.

We need all these-- familiar and obscure both-- positions to be filled from our colleges, not only those that draw hordes of MBAs at job fairs or entice immediate placement for PR firms for those web-savvy enough to work not out of a cubicle but from a coffeehouse. There should be room for all scholars in all pursuits to mingle with the eager dentists and teachers and salespeople who emerge with diplomas. Idealism, I confess. But how often is today's wish for such academic reform cherished vs. the lip service, affirmative action, massive social and political and lobbyist pressure brought upon the reforms that led to the opening of higher education in postwar America and Britain, so regardless of class or race one could perhaps attend, and at one time afford, higher education? What began as well-intentioned updating of curricula in the 1960s has been perverted by the Thatcher-era British and the anti-meritocratic French and now the budget-addled Irish higher education elites in the name of profit.

With my own doctorate in medieval literature and my own considerably eclectic, arcane, and unrenumerative pursuits paid out of my own pockets vs. my own position at a proprietary technical and business institution, I face daily this bottom line rationality. Funding all but the registration fees to travel to conferences where I present, and buying my books and my materials to learn, I recognize the plight of "the independent scholar who happens to teach." There are fewer places in academia for those trained in these rarified realms, and this is the grim game I went into knowing my ignorance of the "it's who you know" rules. But, the chance to play was there for me to make when I entered graduate school. It should be there for others today, nearly a quarter-century later.

However, after the Reagan-Thatcher years began this concerted push towards income over intelligence in our advanced educational centers, the opportunities to enter the competition have narrowed. The classics, medieval, and Celtic studies areas all depend upon dedicated learners little regarded by most universities. Once UCD eliminates OI, it will be like a tenure-track line for the Chaucerian, Latinist, Irish-language or Welsh Arthurian expert that is slashed to make room for the flavor of the decade post-Atlantic, Lacanian or trans-whateverist (we being beyond post- and into transgression in this new century's snug coteries). I lament too how the Irish counterparts of my own technologically centered institution take the trouble to imagine and create bolder innovations than more traditional bastions of higher education regarding fresh thinking, think-tank idea factories, and interdisciplinary ventures.

26ú Bealtaine 2007

Afraid to speak out about universities

Culture Shock: A letter from a senior academic, who cannot be named, reveals the extent to which our third-level institutions have ceased to be centres of free inquiry, writes Fintan O'Toole.

Last month, after I wrote in this column about UCD's decision to end its degree in Old Irish and what it says about the narrowing of minds in our universities, I received a long letter from a very senior Irish academic. He is in many ways an exemplary figure: a hugely popular teacher but also a prodigious writer and researcher who regularly publishes work of the highest quality. But I can't tell you who he is. The saddest and most startling line in his letter is one in which he says that, although he would be quite happy to speak out for his own sake, he fears that doing so would have adverse consequences for his department.

It is possible, of course, that such fears are unfounded. But my correspondent is a calm, amiable man, not given to obvious paranoia. His anxieties are ones that I have heard expressed by a number of academics in a number of institutions. And the very fact that such fears exist within our universities is itself a cause for deep concern. Universities are supposed to be centres of free inquiry and of intellectual curiosity. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the radical restructuring that is currently affecting most of them, there is something utterly askew when even very senior academics feel that they cannot engage in an open and honest discussion of what is happening around them.

My correspondent's letter is about what he calls the 'managerialist' culture, 'which is running riot in our university system, particularly in the two largest universities, Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin". His view of this process is worth detailing, especially since it involves subjects other than his own, and cannot therefore be dismissed as the mere product of academic amour propre.

'Classical languages,' he writes, 'once a distinguished tradition in UCD, scarcely are known any more. Ireland used to produce distinguished classicists; nowadays we import them from Britain and elsewhere. Medieval studies in UCD, once a jewel in the intellectual crown, is being let die; again, we used to produce medievalists of world stature, now we import them. Similar and equally scandalous assaults on the teaching of modern languages have gone unnoticed by Irish journalism. Again, the attempts to force shotgun marriages on subjects that are dissimilar have been ignored. History, sociology and political science have been forced together in Trinity in a way that threatens the identity of all three. At one stage UCD proposed a shotgun marriage between classics and philosophy, betraying a ludicrous ignorance of the nature and content of both intellectual areas.'

His argument for the intellectual autonomy of different subjects is not, however, an argument against 'intellectual synergy'. On the contrary, he argues from his own experience the relevance of a broad, open-minded education, even to specialised areas of research such as his own: 'The social sciences and the humanities depend on each other intellectually: you cannot become an adept in my subject without some background in philosophy and a reading knowledge of several languages other than English. My old-fashioned classical secondary education is a boon to my present-day teaching of the subject. In the United States, a PhD in the subject from a good university usually requires a testing in at least two foreign languages.'

THE OLD IRISH system of broadly-based undergraduate degrees in the humanities, he argues, 'has offered historically an extraordinarily rich variety of subject combinations to generations of undergraduate students. It has produced a large share of our writers, academics, public servants and political leaders, and Ireland would be much poorer intellectually and culturally without it. That richness is under threat . . . '.

I was thinking of this letter earlier this month when I was fortunate enough to hear the UCC medieval historian Donnchadh O'Corrain at the Burren Law School. He was engaged in something that most sane people would assume to be profoundly pointless: the exegesis of a number of early Gaelic legal texts. He is probably one of a tiny number of people in the world who can not just read these texts, but place them precisely in the context of European intellectual history. In the new 'managerialist' culture of our universities, there will be little place for people like him. Of what economic utility is a professor who specialises in Brehon law? Yet his talk was both riveting and utterly contemporary, effortlessly connecting the old words with present-day concerns about the Iraq war and political corruption. It was a reminder that people who really know one subject actually understand a lot about most things.

There are particular ironies in the current narrowing of minds in our universities. It is happening at a time when there is a burgeoning interest in Irish culture abroad, so that we may eventually end up importing scholars of Old Irish from English or American universities. It is also happening at a time when the institutes of technology, supposedly more narrowly career-focused, are widening their remits (the Institute of Technology Tallaght, for example, hosts the National Centre for Franco-Irish Studies) because they recognise that critical thinking is increasingly important in the real world of jobs and business. And it is happening at a time when the arts, as the huge increase in State funding recognises, are becoming increasingly central to national identity. If our institutions of learning are narrow and fearful, how can we sustain a vibrant, innovative culture?

© 2007 The Irish Times (via

Sunday, May 27, 2007

"Yu Ming is ainm dom"

Daniel O'Hara's award-winning short (14 min.) film {"My Name is Yu Ming"} viewable at Atom Films's site below, shows the reality of the "first official language" (a phrase of Dev's to be sure, given its exactitude and canny realism aligned with aspirations of the truncated and incomplete Free State in its constitution) as experienced by a young man from China. More would give too much away. I note that when Yu Ming checks out a book on Gaeilge, it's the exact one that I reviewed earlier today, "Gaeilge agus Failte." Yu Ming, careful student (ta se ag foghlaim go curamach!), would not have made the misapprehension if he had read the book as carefully as he must have! But that'd spoil the plot. The film does take poetic license with Yu Ming's perceptions of today's Irish within today's Ireland, however, to hone its dramatic point, poignant and comic both.">

Paul Elie's "The Life You Save May Be Your Own": Book Review

"Predicament Shared in Common"

Paul Elie's “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” combines the lives of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy into “An American Pilgrimage.”

He examines these luminaries of literary and social culture in postwar, mid-century, pre-and post Vatican II Catholicism. He's an editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, the publishers responsible for so much of the cultural and literary leaven of the middle of last century. I did expect more about his own publishers' relationships with the authors from his access to FSG archives, but perhaps by now with the fame of the writers and the diligence of the scholars combing papers scattered about university vaults by now, the publishers themselves have no secrets left. Inevitably, the attempt to merge four writers into one narrative that reviews their correspondence, books, essays, pronouncements, talks, and travels makes for an uneven journey. Percy’s Christian existentialism by contrast with his determinedly contrary if congenitally eccentric fellow Southerner O’Connor’s keen eye and bitter comedy comes off as aloof, bookish, and not that interesting if by no fault of his own. His novels nearly all pale by comparison with her best fiction, and Elie has difficulty making some of his lesser novels even minimally engaging.

Day, by contrast with Merton, herself suffers from asceticism! While the two converts and one-time near counterparts in NYC progressive political and au courant literati circles in the years between the wars (albeit at some remove from each other’s direct influence and circles of friends) share roots in what we’d call the typical avant-garde movements of Modernism and experimentation that generally any bright young thing in an urban East Coast environment has wandered into over our past decades, Day comes across as markedly more inflexible, so as to anchor her pacifist and anarchist commitment to individual choice to live the Gospel as “fools for Christ” must. Merton learns by contrast to adjust whether to his moral shifts before he entered the Trappists, his infatuation with the Abbey of Gethsemani and his sudden fame after he wrote his memoir, his diagnosis by a shrink as a “narcissist hermit,” and his love affair with a nurse in the mid-1960s just as so many of his clerical colleagues were reneging on their vows and falling in love themselves with women rather than, or as well as, their calling to separate themselves from the ties that bind most of us, or used to.

Elie makes the best out of the enormous secondary criticism that has accrued around O’Connor, and of the correspondence and previously censored material now available to Merton scholars. He gives instructive close readings of “Wise Blood” and “Everything that Rises Must Converge” as well as contrasting the letters to Elizabeth Hester that show her public manner as preserved for posterity vs. hints of a more combative and much less PC Jim Crow-era attitude in her letters to Maryat Lee. The hints of what happened to Robert Lowell as a result of his manic visions of God and Caroline Gordon’s own descent into a rigid form of Catholic scrupulosity needed more detail, however. Also, we have almost no sense of what Flannery did in college or during her MFA years in Iowa City, not to mention her own NYC stint prior to her diagnosis for lupus. I wanted more connection of her own urban flourishing to tie in to Merton’s previous trajectory there, and Day’s own movement away from the secular boho to the Catholic boho contigent, but perhaps such tracks remain too vague for serious biographers to retrace or imagine.

An aside, a correction. Elie: "J.F. Powers had stopped writing." (453) He had not, circa the 1980 death of Dorothy Day when Elie makes this claim, Powers, although very much below the cultural radar admittedly post-Vatican II, had kept working on his fiction, albeit in his very slow and careful manner. After publishing his third collection of stories, "Look How the Fish Live" (1975) Powers prepared on his last novel, "Wheat That Springeth Green," published in 1988. Admittedly, with only two novels and thirty stories anthologized, Powers preferred quality to quantity. I am not sure if Powers after the death of his wife kept writing after 1988. Few writers, possibly O'Connor herself would serve as an analogy in her fiction if not her voluminous correspondence from a life less than half that of Powers, achieved so much with so brief a volume of stories. And, you have to admit that Powers did not have his juvenile efforts memorialized in his 2001 NY Review Press story collection (unlike as Elie points out the willy-nilly lack of editing that dumped Flannery's grad-school exercises next to her finest tales in the Collected Stories FS&G fat volume) that select only to reprint those three slim story collections assembled from the mid-1940s until near his death in 1999.

Back to Elie. Great photos, for once, in "The Life You Save" enliven some familiar faces. A happy young Percy strolling a German farm trail, carefully fenced with twigs. Flannery's radiant as she holds her first novel at a party for the publication of "Wise Blood." Dorothy Day, in the Bob Fitch snapshot shown here, arrested at a UFW protest in Fresno. My favorite is a Merton glancing sideways, eyes and brows mischievous, straw hat atop his habit as he slouches happily by some rustic bench outside on the day of his ordination.

Percy appears genial if gloomy. The loss of much of his correspondence, unlike the stacks of carbons that fill up the enormous epistolary collection “The Habit of Being “ for O’Connor and the letters and diaries for Merton posthumously published may explain Percy’s diminished presence vs. his other two rivals for literary and spiritual audiences. Day seems not to be much interested in writing even though she dutifully published her memoir, carefully glossed as was Merton’s for a more reticent era, “The Long Loneliness.” Day early on appears to have chosen a lifestyle and a manner committed to renunciation of her own early fling, her sexual adventurism (although by our standards she and Merton are the norm, more or less, for those raised less religiously at least today), and her flirtation with Marxist and leftist movements. I like Merton’s advice around the time of the grandstanding Berrigan Brothers agitprop: “I think the best thing is to belong to a universal anti-movement underground.” (qtd. 396)

Elie is at his best in this section, as he shows how Day separated herself from the peacenik hippie priests and those playing to the camera while “the whole world is watching” in the later 60s for revolution that made Jesus a proto-Che. Elie explains that Day took pains to empathize with the other side, always, and not to place any dogma or manifesto between her and her identification with those who may have not wanted war in Vietnam but who could not be led to sympathize with guitar-strumming hippies and angry Jesuits spilling napalm and blood on shredded draft documents as cameras rolled. Merton, too, as Elie takes great care in documenting, struggled to be a leader of the Catholic reformers and the progressive left from his hermitage on the Abbey grounds where civil rights organizers and leftist luminaries made their own pilgrimages to meet with him and where he attempted to stay in touch from behind the monastery walls with a world that he knew needed his advice even as he vowed to stay faithful, at terrible and necessary personal cost, to his promises to remain a loyal priest and obedient monk. Merton too shrank from the violence that inspired young people to immolate themselves as burnt offerings against the war, and soon enough he too would meet the One to whom he ended his “The Seven Story Mountain”. At twenty-seven he entered the Trappists; twenty-seven years later he would find “The Christ of the burnt ones” himself when he was bizarrely electrocuted in Bangkok as he stepped out of his bath mid-day to slip and catch a whirling fan.

O’Connor, being like Merton the more familiar of the four writers, comes across like him as the one you might like to meet and chat with, although unlike Fr. Louis I would fear reading about myself in her letters after the fact. Day’s harder to make appealing, as her severity and devotion to seeing the Lord in the shattered ones kept her focused upon the less prosaic and less easily dramatized side of life that eschews sentimentality and exalts the utterly assured recognition of the Messiah in the poor and the crazed and deluded ones. Her choice, despite the convulsions of the Catholic Worker Movement and the fact that she could rarely find the time alone that Percy, Merton, and O’Connor needed to become speakers to the rest of us, “making oratory out of solitude,” does make her active apostolate all the more admirable.

I conclude with a couple of passages. Elie compares O’Connor with Merton, Day, and Percy. Discussing an admittedly unlikely essay anthology in the tumultuous days of ’69, “Mystery & Manners,” Elie describes how she combined “objectivity and fierce personal conviction,” speaking out of “aloneness and absoluteness,” and how her Southern allegiance in the North, as “a believer in a disbelieving literary society,” as “an artist in a church of philistines,” transcends loneliness or alienation. What she and her fellow writers share is what all believers today share: “the aloneness of the religious believer generally.” (426) She knows faith, the “substance for things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” as I paraphrase the old Baltimore Catechism (as Elie I recall did much earlier in his book).

If O’Connor derived her power from her inflexibility, Elie continues, Merton by his sudden death escaped the end-time days of rage constant upendings of the 60s. His fluidity enabled him “to represent and call forth the aspirations of others.” (427) He could from his semi-cloistered perspective benefit from what the Benedictine Rule (and after all the Trappists are post-Reformation 17c “Cistercians of the Strict Observance” of the 12c Cistercian reform of the 6c Benedictines!) calls the particularly monastic vow of stability.

Elie finds his appeal in his “radical identification of himself with another” that evoked in his readers a similar identification. Merton was able to mature and recognize that his smarts, his charism, his desire for the spotlight could be used to turn attention from himself as the bestselling contemplative, the talkative monk, the literary talent submitting his work to censors (well, at least most of the time—the love letters he sent his nurse Margie notwithstanding, and showing the humanity that endured and made him ultimately a better monk and a kinder Christian at again what must have been enormous sacrifice and, at fifty-two, having to “grow up” even more). He had the gift of getting us to feel as if we were in his sandals, observing wryly and compassionately and righteously what he could see from beyond the walls around his hermitage, and beneath his own defenses within himself, schooled as he was in all the trends of the literati at the shrink.

A year and a half before his death, Merton in the thick of the antiwar campaigns addressed his brothers outside the monastery. Elie points out how “Seven Storey” ended with a poem to his Merton’s brother, John Paul, who had died in the Canadian RAF in WWII. Merton now that I think of it entered the monastery three days after Pearl Harbor, and although not a pacifist had strong reservations about WWII and the types of wars fought by capitalist powers for their own enrichment more than a high moral cause. Reading Camus, Merton came to realize the existential predicament for the believer mattered as much as for those like Camus who could not return to believe what they had left behind. Merton reflects in the letter to his superiors that he has moved beyond the “answers” that his early years in the monastery once led him to think that he had gained.

“Can a man make sense of his existence? Can a man honestly give his life meaning merely by adopting a certain set of explanations which pretend to tell him why the world began and where it will end, why there is evil and what is necessary for a good life? [. . . .] I have been summoned to explore a desert area of man’ s heart in which explanations no longer suffice, and which one learns that only experience counts.” (qtd. 402)

This journey into the arid regions impels the monk. He leaves the world’s distractions to concentrate upon the battle within, and behind the defenses of the cloister he stands vulnerable “to remain open to God wholly and directly.” Whether God answers is not up to the monk. Earlier this month I read (and see my blog for May 6) how Mother Teresa endured half a century of doubt after her initial epiphany calling her to leave her convent walls and serve Calcutta’s destitute. Why keep bothering with religion if its rewards are so few and so nigglingly and unpredictably dispersed? Merton finds God must be known, not proven. “To seek to solve the problem of God is to seek to see one’s own eyes.”

Elie on the last page sums up how the writers’ predicament is now that of any believer, half a century and more now since these four writers thought and argued and prayed. They all knew what any believer or unbeliever today knows: authority lies not on the institutional Church, for that is collapsing, as my two blog entries previous to this one have shown and pondered vis-à-vis David Brooks’ column and Philip Groening’s interview. The reform of today, for Catholics, or anyone “quasi-religious,” in Brooks’ phrase, might be abandoning the idea of a true faith. Elie tells us now that “clear lines of orthodoxy are made crooked by our experiences and complicated by our lives.” (472)

All of us look for signs. Readers, we are trained to and thrive by our own pilgrimage for meaning. Elie notes that “the burden of proof, indeed the burden of belief, for so long upheld by society, is now back on the believer, where it belongs.” I could not have said it better myself—Ireland now finds itself in the same philosophical position, like Merton mid-life and mid-crisis having to wrench himself out of the past habits into a bracing, and harsh, awareness of life as it must be met and improved and sustained without the sureties that in younger and more innocent days comforted us daily and kept us calm at night. Now we have the testimony of Day and O’Connor, Merton and Percy, who all had to balance their unwanted label as “Catholic writers” or intellectuals in thrall to the Vatican with their own real tensions and longings and upsets. They imagined their own afflictions and some made poems and fiction out of it, others and other times these became editorials, letters, diaries, and conversations. But they wrote them down themselves, whereas even for Jesus all we know is a few lines written to the rabbis in the sand at the foot of the “women taken in adultery.” And, the four new evangelists all speak to us, as evangels, messengers, of the pilgrimages they too stumbled through to their uncertain conclusions, far from Jerusalem, Canterbury, or Campostella, path along the Milky Way, that ended at land's end, Europe's last finestierre, in a “field of the stars.”

"Gaeilge agus Failte" by Annette Byrne

This is a review posted on Amazon yesterday of a book & CD package for learners of Irish from different cultures who presumably come to Ireland. A sign of the relevance, significance, and changes in Irish culture in this "first course" for adults lacking the years of "school Irish," and a thoughtful complement to the fact that so many younger families and their children are boosting the "gaeilscoilianna" or Irish-language medium schools where immersion in Gaeilge is seen as enhancing the skills of boys and girls taught bilingually from the start. Lucky them.

This is titled "Gaeilge agus Failte," but the "a" has an long accent in Irish and has been garbled in the Amazon listing, so if you have found your way to this review, congratulations for added effort. This is an softbound oversize workbook with lots of color and 2 CDs, each under an hour with many small recitals, 80-90 each CD. The small sections of the CD lessons are complemented by the many subsections of the ten lessons. Designed for classroom use by adults, the bright pictures and photo captions and cartoon dialogues and song lyrics all make this more reminiscent of a children's set of exercises than a stolid grammatically designed book like Michael O Siadhail's serious, linguistically focused, and West of Ireland Connacht dialect-based "Learning Irish." (Also reviewed by me on Amazon.) Learners resistant to an academic approach to Irish will welcome Byrne's textbook.

Daniel O'Hara's award-winning short film "Yu Ming is ainm dom" shows its protagonist checking out this very book from a Chinese library once he wishes to learn Irish. It's evidently written for multicultural immigrants to Ireland and perhaps could also benefit classes for adults outside Ireland secondarily, as lessons are scripted with an eye towards flexibility, eliciting learners' comparisons of Irish culture to their native one and their own language to that of Irish, through naturally the medium of one's (second, perhaps) language of English. No glossary, no vocabulary lists, no charts to speak of beyond the rudimentary are found. Big print, easy to read lessons, heavily illustrated and almost relentlessly so, lots of short games and fill-ins and small tasks to complete. Tries to bring in the multiple intelligences so learners can find their strengths. It will be incomplete outside of a classroom and teacher, however, as the key does not unlock all the answers. Lots of the content requires a partner to do and then a teacher to correct.

It's not concerned with an academic foundation as a college-level textbook, even though it's for grown-ups. Instead, it's a gradual introduction to Irish by teacher-led exercises, partnered activities set up to engage learners under supervision, open-ended conversation starters, suggestions for writing and speaking with partners, and song snippets. It'd be used for adult "night classes" or an introductory course taught by a native speaker rather than by a single learner, a college student, or a younger student in an Irish class. This is the first book that I know of in recent times aimed at this informal student in a classroom situation wanting the basics without the bother of relentless drills, learned paradigms, and advanced grammatical terminology. So, realize which "adults" are meant to benefit from G&F.

The CDs prove daunting to navigate, as no chart is given in the book to let you know where Track 57 or 83 or 19 is found in the textbook. You have to go one by one and make your own chart to link the icon of the cassette in the textbook to what track next comes on the tape chronologically. This is a drawback. If a chart had been included with corresponding pagination, the learner or teacher could have been saved a considerable amount of unnecessary effort. The voices are male and female, young and old, funny and curt, and are clearly recorded. Emphasis is on a consistently level spoken delivery rather than dialects, and the "Caighdean" or standard "school" form of Irish appears, as meets the needs of absolute beginners.

It's an attractive book that is designed (like RTE's Turas Teanga, also reviewed by me) to be used with a website. For an independent learner, much of the book does not have an answer key and depends upon interaction with a teacher and fellow learners, so the use may be limited. There's not much in-depth concentration on any one part of each subdivided lesson, but there's plenty of short activities and readings for brief study and reinforcement. It's far less scholarly than the Cois Fharraige West of Ireland Connemara dialect of "Beginning Irish" by O Siadhail, but more accessible than the likes of "Teach Yourself Irish" by Shiels and O Se, which takes on the Munster dialect. Note that G&F is sort of a cross-border, non-regional introduction to Irish meant for anyone, anywhere, so budding linguists may prefer O Siadhail. For less demanding learners needing the basics, this and Rosenstock (see next paragraph) would make a fine pair of tutors. So, despite the drawbacks of the CD organization, given the lack of competition for a lively, standard-based text and CD combination, G&F may prove a passable supplement to other materials. For those outside Ireland or not having had any Irish in school in the past, it will be the choice rather than "Turas Teanga," which expects that you will have had "school Irish" in your youthful past but wish in your more mature years to brush up on it again.

I recommend G&F for an independent learner in conjunction with Gabriel Rosenstock's lively, also culturally oriented rather than linguistically focused, "Beginner's Irish" CD and book. Unlike G&F, BI is meant for an individual learner outside the classroom wanting to understand the history, background, and current relevance of Irish. It lacks exercises but shares with G&F a relaxed approach for the total beginner; it is less structured and more eclectic in its dialogues, examples, and presentation, as befits a poet's authorship of a language primer! Like G&F-- which is after all more organized as it's under the auspices of Gael-Linn and the Linguistics Institute of Ireland, BI emphasizes in small snippets the context within which Irish is used and can be seen all about the Hiberno-English dialect and the sights and sounds of Ireland itself for the learner. Although both BI and G&F aim at an Irish resident, they can be used, for listening and reading and enjoyment, by solo learners anywhere. (I have also reviewed Rosenstock on Amazon.)

The CDs are not given their own pocket in the book but came cellophane taped to the inside rear cover, so the tape has to be torn off the paperback to open the CDs! Poor design once again; the lack of attention given the CDs in their physical placement and their danger of getting lost when separated from the book, as with the earlier problem of tracking where the CD corresponds to the lessons, shows that the audio portion suffered even as the written segment of the book holds promise for the learner of this ancient and ever-popular language and the culture which even a cursory knowledge of Gaeilge will help you to unlock and enjoy much more.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Quasi-Religious: Catholic or not?

I think David Brooks, he of the Bohos in Paradise thesis, has it part right in his column in the May 25, 2007 New York Times. He argues that the old Andrew Greeley thesis for the Irish Catholics, that by the 1980s the Micks had outpaced the Prods in social status and equalled their former betters in economic clout. Since I wrote in my April entry "A God Shaped Hole?" about Hitchens' new screed via my Irish thoughts and Jack Miles' LA Times review Brooks cites Lisa Keister's Duke study claiming this now has happened for "quasi-religious" Catholics in the US. Sure, and his claims that being a skeptical member of a tough faith is the best recipe for such advancement certainly ring true for this writer to an extent, but I think Brooks writes too far outside the situation to fully grasp the collapse of the pre-conciliar hegemony and the implosion of American Catholic culture. I doubt that the next generation will be any more Catholic.

Brooks's comparison to secular Jews is more on the money. Unlike Yiddishkeit, and without the media stereotypes for better and worse that Hollywood has continued to churn out about clergy from all sides of the altar, pulpit, and bimah in the days of Judd Apatow, Sarah Silverman, and Zach and the other Braff (my boy and his buddy tonight rushing out to yet another Jersey boy gone Tinseltown as Zach stars in "The Ex"; Jerome who knows all told us one day that Jennifer Aniston is an MOT), Catholicism lacks charm today. Gays and hipsters and the newly urban may all find klezmer and egg creams and rebbetzins novel. But that "hole in the sheet" tale's an old wife's one no less than that of my youth that if you press your nail into your mosquito bite in the shape of a cross that it will heal faster. But the teasing Jewish titillation, typically, trumps for appeal the practical Papist remedy. Dov Cherney he of American Apparel infamy put up a billboard, the Forward tells us, at Alvarado and Sunset as well as some gentrifying corner of NYC with in Yiddish a sign of Woody Allen in payes and Hasidic garb with in proper lettering "our esteemed rabbi" or mamaloshen to that effect. This sort of kitsch may work for clubgoers and the terminally trendy who find their culture dependent on Judaic irreverence. Perhaps this religious marketing will revive via sodalities, novenas, holy cards, and pagan babies for the generation of 2037 in some once-Catholic downtrodden and then loftladen district of Westlake if not Westchester, our coast.

With the sex scandals and the assimilation of ethnic enclaves (the same paper same day tells us that "Hispanics" tend more to soccer, laundry, or sleeping in than Mass attendance once they settle in El Norte), not to mention the closing of parishes and the decline of vocations, the Church as we knew it cannot continue. When I was a teen the clergy predicted this shrinkage already, and this in the days of being identified by your parish and not your suburb or neighborhood, the days of trustingly letting your little ones go off with Father to the movies, the days of fish Fridays (no penance for me there!) and framed Papal indulgences for the couples married fifty years and actually seeing your friends carry rosaries and wear those stringy shrunken scapulars to protect them from harm and after nine First Fridays at Mass a "happy death." A culture, as I squint back, that shimmered in its last haze before the secular sun's heat.
May 25, 2007
Op-Ed Columnist
The Catholic Boom

The pope and many others speak for the thoroughly religious. Christopher Hitchens has the latest best seller on behalf of the antireligious. But who speaks for the quasi-religious?

Quasi-religious people attend services, but they’re bored much of the time. They read the Bible, but find large parts of it odd and irrelevant. They find themselves inextricably bound to their faith, but think some of the people who define it are nuts.

Whatever the state of their ambivalent souls, quasi-religious people often drive history. Abraham Lincoln knew scripture line by line but never quite shared the faith that mesmerized him. Quasi-religious Protestants, drifting anxiously from the certainties of their old religion, built Victorian England. {My editorial note, not Brooks: I add that one of the images I use above is of an Anglican cathedral on Easter, an empty nave. Be careful what you wish for, voices of rational progress, unless, as many admittedly wish to see, churches only as museums. Strange to think that even Hitler foresaw in his Reich that such commemorations of a vanquished faith and its adherents would be necessary for the triumph of the Party to be all the more secured.} Quasi-religious Jews, climbing up from ancestral orthodoxy, helped shape 20th-century American culture.

And now we are in the midst of an economic boom among quasi-religious Catholics. A generation ago, Catholic incomes and economic prospects were well below the national average. They had much lower college completion rates than mainline Protestants. But the past few decades have seen enormous Catholic social mobility.

According to Lisa Keister, a sociologist at Duke, non-Hispanic white Catholics have watched their personal wealth shoot upward. They have erased the gap that used to separate them from mainline Protestants.

Or, as Keister writes in a journal article, “Preliminary evidence indicates that whites who were raised in Catholic families are no longer asset-poor and may even be among the wealthiest groups of adults in the United States today.”

How have they done it?

Well, they started from their traditional Catholic cultural base. That meant, in the 1950s and early ’60s, a strong emphasis on neighborhood cohesion and family, and a strong preference for obedience and solidarity over autonomy and rebellion.

Then over the decades, the authority of the church weakened and young Catholics assimilated. Catholic values began to converge with Protestant values. Catholic adults were more likely to use contraceptives and fertility rates plummeted. They raised their children to value autonomy more and obedience less.

The process created a crisis for the church, as it struggled to maintain authority over its American flock. But the shift was an economic boon to Catholics themselves. They found themselves in a quasi-religious sweet spot.

On the one hand, modern Catholics have retained many of the traditional patterns of their ancestors — high marriage rates, high family stability rates, low divorce rates. Catholic investors save a lot and favor low-risk investment portfolios. On the other hand, they have also become more individualistic, more future-oriented and less bound by neighborhood and extended family. They are now much better educated than their parents or grandparents, and much better educated than their family histories would lead you to predict.

More or less successfully, the children of white, ethnic, blue-collar neighborhoods have managed to adapt the Catholic communal heritage to the dynamism of a global economy. If this country was entirely Catholic, we wouldn’t be having a big debate over stagnant wages and low social mobility. The problems would scarcely exist. Populists and various politicians can talk about the prosperity-destroying menace of immigration and foreign trade. But modern Catholics have created a hybrid culture that trumps it.

In fact, if you really wanted to supercharge the nation, you’d fill it with college students who constantly attend church, but who are skeptical of everything they hear there. For there are at least two things we know about flourishing in a modern society.

First, college students who attend religious services regularly do better than those that don’t. As Margarita Mooney, a Princeton sociologist, has demonstrated in her research, they work harder and are more engaged with campus life. Second, students who come from denominations that encourage dissent are more successful, on average, than students from denominations that don’t.

This embodies the social gospel annex to the quasi-religious creed: Always try to be the least believing member of one of the more observant sects. Participate in organized religion, but be a friendly dissident inside. Ensconce yourself in traditional moral practice, but champion piecemeal modernization. Submit to the wisdom of the ages, but with one eye open.


James M. Doyle of Nantucket in a letter responding to Brooks in today's NYT points out sagely that the same politicians Brooks and his neo-con cronies grovel before kicked in the structures that allowed Catholics to rise up through the lower and middle-level management positions. My Cal Grants and Pell Grants and work-study allowed me that Jesuit college education that perhaps inspired me to return what others had given me back to others by teaching. Today, I would be in debt perhaps $80,000 and some bankers would be the only ones benefitting from my labors. I was lucky that Reagan's wrecking ball did not start its heaviest swings until I had graduated, so intent was he on a second term before letting loose the demolition squads.

Now, as Layne told Niall last night, he will be paying for the debacle in Iraq long after we are gone. Housing locally, food, fuel, and the cost of living soar. The mayor only can see more "infill" to stem the flight of those neither too rich or too poor down the jammed freeways further into the dusty inlands. Our county grows by a million people a decade. Everyone wants to drive and who can blame them, but where are the jobs that allow us to live where we work? They tell us globalization grants bargains for we Angelenos, not to mention lots of new restaurants and street festivals and celebrations at school international days. But, how can our stretch of land crammed between ocean and hills and support newcomers equal to two Chicagos in the next few years? And, once here, everyone brings their proverbial brother and his family over too.

Outsourcing and offshoring destroyed the stability that once was present in corporate America, and who can say that Catholics, Jews, or Protestants, quasi, non, totally, or skeptically religious can hope for such a future for their children's upward mobility?

Doyle: You don’t have to be a committed Marxist to recognize that the family cohesion Mr. Brooks attributes to the influence of the Catholic Church was supported on a foundation of decent hourly-wage industrial jobs and low-to-middle level managerial positions, which the political powers he so consistently supports have systematically stripped out of the economy.

Family cohesion is a lot easier when every adult in the family is not working two jobs. If new generations of Catholics have outstripped their parents in terms of education, perhaps it is because the G.I. Bill and other government policies in the 1950s and 1960s made that possible.

How to film time?

Philip Groening's interview with Angela Zito (sorry, I only can hit the umlaut when I accidentally mean for a fada, the long vowel accent in Irish on this silly keyboard that shows off its American ethnocentrism) opens up even more his epic effort in "Into Great Silence/ Die Grosse Stille." The "daily review of religion and the press" at "The Revealer" has an excellent talk with the director on why he had to make the film by himself, how chronology and repetition work for the editor, and the effort to come to terms with his own conflict over Catholicism. Groening learned much about his own aesthetic and spiritual tendencies, and I find it intriguing how his art reveals his own inner longing while embracing the outer swirl at La Grande Chartreuse. The interview's worth reading even if you have no interest in the film. Although after you ponder his thoughts, if you still remain indifferent to seeing this nearly three-hour pilgrimage into the Other, you must be a heretic beyond any redemption, cinematic or communicant (in more than one sense of the latter term!)...

Oh yeah. The problem with getting a keyboard to type accents and foreign characters. How our machines reflect our mindsets. Our cars show off our status. Our engines driven by our desires.

Don't get me started this Memorial Day weekend. Patriotism and scoundrels. There's this commercial by GM, buzzers of the Hummer and builders of behemoths, with the gall to simper about helping Our Troops feel needed with the GM dealers' effort to collect cards and letters for our war-weary soldiers fighting for our right not to drive 55 or 65. The thought's nice, but the action belies their charity when their lots are full of vehicles costing $80 to fill up while the GM's EV1's lie in a stack of rusting compressed tin in Arizona, all 4000 or so of the plucky electric cars being collected and discarded in 2004. Meanwhile, patents get bought out, inventors sidelined, and it looks like the automakers, American buyers, and OPEC in line with our Cheney-Bush Halliburton-Saudi manipulators will build Dubai into a Allah-baiting green wonderland of fake plastic trees as our globe warms, gas climbs to near $4 for me a gallon, and this century sees the other three billion of us on this sweltering orb climb into their own drivers' seats.

How to get us out of our seats by raising fares that supposedly will fund more trains to get us out of our cars is a Catch-22. With its outrageous increases, the MTA will lose money. Result one: the poor will not pay and hope not to get called on to produce a ticket, which I calculate is about a 1:200 chance from my observation and experience. Result two: the poor as they did during the MTA strike will find ways to bum rides. Or drive. Roads congest. Result three: the MTA will lose revenue and the congestion will increase as fewer of us take the trouble (considerable as it is even when there are now lines running every half-hour for the bus or twenty minutes for many trains; the MTA warns they will keep hiking fares and charge per mile ridden by 2012) to board the bus or train when a day pass runs not $3 but $5 and soon $6. Why double your commute, at the least, when you pay more and can drive and waste the same amount of gas for your dollar? Better air-conditioning, and you can install air-fresheners.

How will this punishment of those who take the trouble to get off the highway out of public duty, poverty, or convenience? Our motives may be mixed, but a million riders a day on MTA help a the rest of us when we drive about this LA County that grows by 100,000 people a year? How will this ease our smog as our emissions standards stringent as they were weaken due to relentless population growth? 5% of us may commute by bus and train as it is now. We all know what a few more cars only on the road can do to overload the system. The cynical fare increase for those of us trying to take local public transit, furthermore, is a spit in the eye of the vast majority of those I see with me on the MTA each day's commute as the Blue Line squeals through Compton and Vernon and Long Beach.
One appointee who defended the increases had written a letter-- he in Sherman Oaks probably avails himself little of the Orange Line-- that characterized the MTA with its cheaper fares only a "floating hotel for transients and gangbangers." I am the first to thank technology for my IEMs and the ability to shut out the sounds of transit, but this language by a member of the MTA board speaks of the attitude of those backing the fare hikes. The Bus Riders Union too errs in claiming that only "whites" (and by extension we are all rich in their lefty eyes) ride rail, and its urging of more buses to clog streets at the expense of more rail to ease commutes is again part of the problem. I admire their protests the other day against the MTA, but casting this as a racist plot against the proles I find risible. The agitproppers at Revolution Books on Pico need to take off their Ché bandannas and look about who rides the Red and Blue and yes even the Gold Line. Do the math of parity that Pacifica Radio fixates on as the Golden Mean of all measures upon us, and work out the ethnic percentages to see that indeed the rails as the buses reflect their neighborhoods. And, contrasting the average annual income of $11k for bus riders vs. a whopping $22k for railroaders does not exactly speak to the affluence of either demographic who gets to watch the Hummers and Hyundais whir past the windows in traffic.

A charade for our Green Day Heal the Earth postures in this city indulged in lately by Mayor Villaraigosa. The homeboy who can do no wrong for the LA Times, last week came to Griffith Park (1/4 burned thanks to global warming and the dryest year in 140 years) in a chartered bus to show off his devotion to public transit. He left the same lovefest in a Yukon. Security reasons, rationalized his omnipresent handlers. The wife (mine not his) used to see him with the like entourage on his jog at 5-ish in the morn, and he only a city councillor back then not Hizzoner.

All these crocodile tears about sacrificing for our boys and girls in Iraq as if putting a yellow-ribbon on our own Yukon (where'd the snow go?) or Tundra (watch it melt) SUV makes up for our hypocritical binge of conspicuous consumption brings out the reactionary g-damned independent monkey wrenching anarchist in me. Reading about the fame-conflicted narcissist-solitary Thomas Merton, the embitteredly pure pacifist Dorothy Day and the self-conscious visionary Flannery O'Connor and the by comparison dull doctor Walker Percy in Paul Elie's "The Life You Save Might Be Your Own" reminds me of the little that I have kept in my soul from my college years of reading. Picking up the Catholic Worker myself, registering with Pax Christi after my year was the first to have to sign up for Selective Service, stumbling upon "The Seven Storey Mountain" at the age of thirteen, and methodically working my way through both O'Connor's fearsome fiction and the rather arid but curiously intimate novels of Percy's Southern scions in college for and not for credit: all of these authors and so many more from that mid-century burst of Catholic culture moved me. Turning the pages of "Jubilee" in the LMU stacks as I sat at a carrel and looked out over the roof's white gravel slanting in harsh sun. They all touched me and still do, I now realize, deeply despite my carapace of gloom. My cynical crust.

I hope in my few better moments I can still cherish the Jesuit imperative for social justice, for simplicity, knowledge as opposed to information, and that the choices we make should be informed by the imagination and tempered by reason. By my teaching and writing and thinking, even grumpy aloof me tries his best to ease the way of others. Even if the Dodgers lose and my son erupts with the same relentless resignation and Irish fatalism his progenitor carries so deep it's DNA. Nature + Nurture= Niall.

I too try to cultivate awareness, as the adepts of the East (or the Westside of Manhattan and LA-- latest flyer in window at Bodhi Tree for a talk on healing the self by the magic crystals of Chakra or to that effect I kid you not) might phrase it when striving for a bit of detachment from Chavez Ravine's hapless Blue Crew (as my dear co-habitant in her own blog entry the other day has also mused). I read about Leonard Cohen up there 600o feet at the Mount Baldy Zen center a mile above my childhood home (pre-tract houses, pro-citrus groves) and how he sees the fulfillment of his own path in between a waitress's breasts as she leans down to call him "honey." I commend the 70-ish bard's insight, and his physical sight, and bet he gave her a great tip as well as a fine poem. Cohen reminds us hipsters aging along with him that the ability to see the beauty in the beloved and the erotic in the everyday is part of our salvation. If we want to detach from the world, we must love it even more. By the bittersweet separation that in Merton's phrase will hit us one day as a blast of "not-there-ness" we learn to live before that death.

As the monks and hermits and radicals and misfit writers in Elie all agree: our divine quest begins with the domestic and the habitual. More and more the labels of denominations, the strictures of sects, and the dogma of hairsplitters fascinates me even as I remain increasingly apart from the debate. Blame it on that yoga lesson my dear co-respondent makes me take once a week. Ok, ok, enough-- ahimsa.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Celtic Women: Mystic Maidens of Avalon?

And not the harried slatterns who fled that Catalina Island's resort last week as fires crackled all around them, the domain of buffalo, the wealthy, and those who serve them and the tourists in their glass-bottomed boats and big-bottomed jeans? Avalon as the "isle of apples," the Arthurian version of Hy-Brasil, the western isle, the Tir na nOg, the land of the neverending story?

A slow month. Even Layne's down in blogging. Not much noteworthy.

Claire Dederer in the NY Times has a worthwhile article on the "Celtic Women" phenomenon. I guess I am heartened that for once a "younger demographic" for PBS includes me as among "forty- and fiftysomethings." I mused only yesterday how little I care now for whoever LA Weekly includes among its top 50 Angelenos, never having seen any of them but Henry Rollins from afar on stage once in 1979 at LMU and Jason Lee on Michillinda way up in the Silverlake hills as he sat in his Range Rover by the curb of his house down the street from Leo's friend's family (Hollywood editor or the like) a year ago when I picked him (not Jason, father of Rocket Pilot or some such monikered goateed spawn and tatooed you baby boy) up. Is this to be encouraged?

The LA Times gave a similar wake-up call last week to those old enough to recall the days of Beyond Baroque circa 1980 when it reviewed a wizened hipstress Johanna Went and her penchant at her latest appearance as a version of Sha-Na-Na plays the State Fair, over a quarter-century later, for spilling fake blood over herself out of a skull while standing in a wading pool on stage as some homage to performance art. Even Iggy Pop stopped smearing peanut butter on himself at one point, although "hope I die before I get old" Pete Townshend still must smash his guitar each gig I suppose to please the punters.

Here's the Celtic Women piece. They even spelled the lass with the Irish-language name correctly. Cool pic, no?

Monday, May 14, 2007

Keep those cards & letters coming?

Blogs: not from the fan but the recipient's p-o-v? How do the musical budding geniuses regard the process that demands MySpace, YouTube, a band's own site, and lots of rapid responses to besotted fans IM's? Not as good as it could have been, or at least what I was looking for regarding a certain quintet of distinguished Irish gentlemen of a certain age, but this article does tie in to today's research project about Horslips, the CBH site (see my own link from my blog homepage) and how a band deals today with creating music while the fans are looking over their shoulders.

Clive Thompson in the NY Times Magazine's "Sex, Drugs, & Updating Your Blog" discusses what pressures grow as musicians find they are expected to keep up appearances, upload songs, and answer all that fan mail. Where would the Beatles have been if they started out today, 300 e-mails to answer daily from the Hamburg rathskellar? (Ok, my image is of a kohl-eyed gamine and not a goateed denizen of a Brooklyn coffeehouse at a laptop that accompanied Thompson's entry. My wife the silent film scholar probably can identify the lass who was probably a borough babe herself. Update from the source: admire the grin of America's Sweetheart, Miss Mary Pickford.) The first mass medium to utterly change was the song due to the Net, so says the scribe, and now the process of sharing music and getting feedback on it itself has been opened up to the public's scrutiny.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Luminarium = Illumination

Anniina Jokinen responded to my note of thanks sent a few days ago for her site, Luminarium, which started out as one page with Medieval Lit links and has expanded over the past decade into Renaissance, Restoration, and later 17c world and British literary texts and cultural connections. (The image here is from the website, a handsome polyptych.) A handsome resource too which I now recommend to students, and to you. Her comments sum up well the battle we on the Net do, as much as do the hordes who fought censorship of the DVD copy protection code last week, to keep open access to knowledge. After all, were we not told by John Perry Barlow, EFF, Bruce Sterling, GNU, Slashdot, and all those visionaries of the same "decade ago how "information wants to be free"? I mentioned this issue last week in my Technology, Culture, and Society course in defending the use by students, judiciously and not entirely to the exclusion of other sources, of Wikipedia. One young man raised his eyebrows. When I asked him why, he answered it was refreshing to hear my point-of-view that we should all "give back to the web unless one day we wake up and find it a portal that we need a credit card to enter."

Here's the gist from Aniina's reply that sums up her and my credo well.
Hi John,

Thank you for your kind words. As someone outside traditional academia myself now, I know intimately how hard it is to do independent research. Everyone wants you to join and sign away your name, your credit card, or your first-born child. If we want to foster interest in the past giants on whose shoulders we all stand, how can we make it so difficult to gain access to their works? It has long pissed me off, to put it frankly, and I'll keep doing all I can to make sure that works that are all of our literary and intellectual heritage, regardless of national origin, language, or financial or academic status, remain free for all.

Thanks also for the links, and the blog buzz!


(I had written earlier--slightly revised here:)
As an independent scholar (I teach but at an introductory level at a technical college, so I am not the tenure-track professor awash in foundation grants and rarified leisure) with research interests in both medieval and Irish literary culture, I wanted to drop you a line of thanks. You are right in your Letter from the Editor—those of us outside traditional academia lacking access to vast databases and proprietary knowledge controlled by universities and consortia welcome the effort you have put into this “labor of love” over, well, going on eleven years. Thanks, and best wishes. I will link your site to my webliography for my Intro to Lit students. (I also mentioned it on my blog today.)

Monday, May 7, 2007

J. F. Powers: Hissing of Suburban (Rectory) Lawns

J.F. (James Farl Powers) was born in Jacksonville, Illinois, the same year as my dad and a year before my father-in-law, 1917, dying in 1999 at Collegeville, Minnesota (home of St. John's the largest Benedictine monastery in America and its adjoining, well, former college!). Powers was once highly regarded in the decades when Thomas Merton, Flannery O'Connor, Dorothy Day and Walker Percy spoke along with Powers about American Catholic culture. I never knew until researching this blog entry that he was a CO in WWII (takes some commitment) and at the height of the war joined the Catholic Worker Movement. Thirteen months in jail for draft resistance in 1943 in what must have been a difficult experience, to say the least. His sharp wit and fierce commitment may have mellowed a bit with the years, but his photo shows a man with a scowl, as much at himself than at the world he knows he too is haplessly and helplessly tangled up in, as much as his priests who must deal with bills to pay and prayers to say with equal devotion. Jim Powers hit his stride in the late 40s, and he's linked with postwar Catholic triumphalism-- not his but that of his subjects, mainly small-town clergy stuck between the Windy City and the Twin Cities in the fictional dioceses of Great Plains and Ostergothenburg. I think of Iggy Pop from Ypsilanti, last name Osterberg, born around, well, 1947.

Powers for his later reputation as a writer remembered more by his peers than by his audience may be blamed on his own Midwestern humility and commonsense, far removed from the bicoastal swagger. He admired the diligence and industry of the common folks, from which he came, and as a failed salesman in the Depression knew what it was like to tough it out. Couldn't afford college. Had to be a writer even if it meant a hand-to-mouth existence less comfortable than that of many of his fictional creations. However, he had contacts who had moved up, and perhaps dropped him a few tidbits of gossip or insight that he could embed in his stories. At least one contact, a boyhood friend, became a highly influential priest in the pre-Vatican II movement for reform. A reform that perhaps did in the Church as he knew it best. Powers remains self-effacing, perhaps one more reason I have always liked his work. He observes, fades in and out of the presence of his subjects, preferring to let them speak for themselves or, give them enough rope....

Powers, if less dramatically than his better marketed and often more gladhanding peers, examined the Catholic edifice that a century of immigration, financial savvy, and episcopal finagling had erected. Not its triumphalist post-war expansion into sprawling parish-church-convent complexes, acreage of teeming children in uniforms, phalanxes of seminarians pushing dorms to bursting as Vatican II was convening. Out of this, priests had to deal with shaking hands with donor devils. How else were the children of God going to be wise unless they cozened up to the wiser children of the world. What a haunting passage from the admonitions of Jesus in John. The priests in Powers follow this injunction with all its terror and ennui and despair, ultimately having to rely on a faith that their exterior actions, delineated by Powers by action rather than commentary, convey. Rather than Bing Crosby or Jimmy Cagney or even Karl Malden, the priests in Powers deal with less dramatic or less contrived battles. Powers shows us the spiritual malaise of the priests, the ennui of those who had to live another half century after their early piety had ebbed, going through the motions at some concrete and glass monstrosity rising above the new sidewalks and tract homes. Still, perhaps for the last time in American Catholicism, these frontline clergy in their unheralded way soldier on their own viae dolorosae.

A couple of rural dioceses in largely Lutheran Minnesota, Germans with stolid temperaments, some Catholic and some not when such distinctions mattered, and the occasional Irish American priest or layperson thrown in for ethnic color. Unpromising on the surface. All the more challenge for a skilled writer in the waning days of Catholic separatism and parochial "we're number 2 so we try harder" to limn. "Second only to Standard Oil" was titled a chapter of Powers' first novel about a preacher of the Clementines (whose rivals were the Dolomites and Dalmatians, not to mention the Jesuits and Redemptorists) among the Land of Lakes and Chicago and forlorn retreat houses in between, "Morte d'Urban," which won the National Book Award in 1963. Powers takes this mundane subject of a smart, worldly cleric's reassignment to the boondocks and out of it he turned his savage critique of a materialist and almost cruelly calculating society and out of it made a quiet work of art about a priest's immersion, and not only once at a conveniently placed climax but in true Catholic form over and over in bumbling, unexpected, and tragicomic epiphanies, in an incomplete and more realistic form. Protestants stress salvation as known prior to death. Catholics, at least like Fr. Urban and his maker, know better of their creator.

Fallon Evans, with whom I took Brit Lit for credit at LMU and an Irish Lit class for fun at the remnants of Immaculate Heart, compiled in 1968 a thin volume of critics responding to Powers. I see how John V. Hagopian contributed a volume to the Twayne series, which seems to have covered every author alive by now, in 1970, and that's it. Nancy Hynes OSB mentions on the Nimble Spirit writer's site how she's working on the biography of Powers. Moments ago it occurred to me that I had not come across any such lengthier work, so I figured I had better look Powers up before embarking on yet another Grand Project that one day later I find Someone Else has already beaten me to, story of my academic career. I wish Sister Nancy the best of luck, and the reissue by NY Review Press of Powers' two novels "Morte d'Urban" and "Wheat That Springeth Green" (1988) as well as the collected stories from his three anthologies ["Prince of Darkness," (1953), "The Presence of Grace" (1969), and "Look How the Fish Live" (1975)] is welcome. Perhaps, as with many on the NYRP backlist, Powers is a "writer's writer," but we need such guides in our Slough of Despond as we modern day pilgrims trudge our Teva'd and Birkenstocked Pilgrim's Progress.

Lest you pigeonhole JFP as another Catholic Novelist to be patronized and ignored if you do not dip your finger in the holy water font, may I add he has written about cats, Negroes (as they were called in Powers' pacifist days in the wartime of These United States) and the sandlot with equal verve. (The lastmentioned ensured his place in the Library of America's "Baseball: A Literary Anthology" which Spuds will like when a bit older.) Powers for me shines best in his stories. Very droll, midwestern, and poignantly wry. No easy feat. When priests had training not in psychiatry but polyphony. Homiletics-- not that it helped much-- more often than hermeneutics. Reminds me a bit of George Saunders in a pre-cubicle, pre-glass windowed conference room time of "The Office." Grandchildren of Powers' mid-century grey flannel communicants and greying clerics may have abandoned candlelit devotions to crown a plaid-skirted colleen or bambina Queen of the May, K of C, and Legion of Mary for the flickering pleasures of the Wii, plasma HDTV or Blu-Ray, but the discomfort remains. Is that all there is?

Richard Weber's piece in a 2000 issue of Notre Dame magazine sums up the "deadly serious" tragicomic quality of this chronicler of Midwestern dull days and long celibate nights that tempt us all no matter our own vowed state of grace or the number of occupants in the bedroom of our chosen residence. The Noonday Demon, we realize, tormented Powers and his characters relentlessly, amidst these somnolent car lots and TV-droned rec rooms. Powers imagines lives among meddling housekeepers, annoyingly scrupulous penitents, and basement sodality socials. It's also why JFP never had a calling himself-- too reluctant to spend his decades kibitzing with old maids on the front steps after Mass, or kissing up to fat cats so the temperature= dollar gauge on the painted billboard outside those same steps would move up a notch or two to show the building fund's rise. God & Mammon, the priest trying for holiness on the golf course, told to render unto Caesar: JFP finessed these clerical and lay tensions very well. Within a decade, it seemed to him and me, this all vanished.

There is also a misleadingly titled Sept. 2006 blog entry on First Things by Joseph Bottum called "Bottum: The Greatest Catholic Writer of the 20th Century" which is actually not self-promoting the blogger but, as it should be, about Powers. Bottum accurately locates the first cause of Powers' subsequent semi-obscurity in the last third of the 20c to the decline of clerical authority, the post-conciliar slump in both priestly vocations and hierarchical pomp, and the assimilation of Catholics into the secularized American mainstream after nearly two hundred years of separatism both wished for and foisted upon them.

The past week, I may add, Boston U.'s Stephen Prothero energetically promotes his new book calling for if not fluency than a barebones "Religious Literacy" by students in college. I suppose high school would be too contentious. Evolution can't even stay in textbooks without disclaimers, so imagine apologists and detractors of a comparative religion course meant to praise every faith-based contingent without offending anyone else that still meets the cleverly worded and magnificently conceived establishment clause of our First Amendment.

Few of my students when I ask them about the curse on Adam & Eve after they're expelled from Eden have any clue what I mean. Most nominally are still Christian, but with growing numbers from Africa and Asia, I am not so sure-- Copts, Hindus, Buddhists, and the unaffiliated mingle with the few who know about the Reformation or Gutenberg. Nobody seems to put those two into a cause and effect relationship, but a college instructor has to justify his pay, no? (Although those ads during Dodgers games for union-trained pipefitters making more than I do on the non-tenured treadmill midcareer and twelve years post PhD tempt me to a midlife crisis.)

The new Steve Carell movie may teach them about Noah, but there's widespread ignorance about Pandora's Box, the flight of Icarus, Dr. Faustus, or even the Sorcerer's Apprentice in "Fantasia." Nobody knows what's a muezzin, what distinguishes Buddhists from Hindus, or what Muslims are enjoined to do five times a day. And yet most profess a vague identification with what used to be known as gospel truths.

(Image note: daughter Mary Farl Powers-- these Irish Catholics I know, not very original with the names over generations as I bear semi-silent and grudging testimony to every day I sign my own moniker-- went to Ireland and became an artist, a member of Aosdana in 1981 and QED a distinguished talent before her own death in 1992. She was born there. JFP and family lived in Greystones south of Dublin twice for two year stints and once in Dalkey for the same. Two times in the 1950s, one in the early 60s. A sign of the times: they could live cheaper in Ireland off his occasional story sales to the likes of The New Yorker than back in Minnesota while he taught creative writing on and off at the U of M or the other U of M[ichigan]-- or Marquette, or the decidedly non-Midwest Smith! P.S. Is not a farl a potato bread roll-- not a bap!-- in the North? This via the NI Arts Council is of Mary's print "Emblements.")

Fruits of "socialist democracy" indeed?

In the May 6 New York Times, I found a refreshing article about an actor, James McAvoy, who seems to have discovered, and as Karen Durbin's piece is titled, "How to Leap Into Fame and Keep Your Head." Before I read it, I noted to Layne a letter in the LA Times by an astute fellow peruser of both papers. The writer had commented that if friends asked her to sum up the intellectual difference between the two cities in their cultural attainments and literary sophistication, she simply invited her interlocutors to place side by side the two papers' Book Reviews. I rest my case, adding only that I mentioned to my own interlocutor moments before reading that below how she need not bother with the Calendar section of the LAT as it was only puff pieces about blockbusters written by flacks. Why, I mused as I opened the Arts & Culture portion of the NYT, do I tend to actually skim at least the articles rather than, as with the LAT, not get past most headlines? Is it snobbery? If stripped of their identifying typefaces and placed side by side as plain text (and not Times Roman!) would I tell the difference? Such bits as what I share now make me think I could. McAvoy sounds like a smart fellow.

I have never seen the actor in any film, but the article drew me in. The literate and intelligent content, as handled by the interviewer and the interviewee, I think, shows well (and this only half of the full entry given over to his role in an upcoming Jane Austen adaptation) how the NYT strives to capture the human interest beneath the PR campaign and the apparently tedious (yeah right, give me that job on either end) rounds that those deemed our next stars make with jaded journalists. Or it may be that we Celts are simply eloquent.

BEFORE going to his first Academy Awards ceremony this year, the Scottish actor James McAvoy spent a week in Uganda making a documentary for a Red Cross fund-raising campaign to help the country’s 1.4 million people left homeless by years of civil war. For Mr. McAvoy the campaign is payback for “The Last King of Scotland,” which was set in Uganda and stars Forest Whitaker as the country’s infamous 1970s dictator, Idi Amin, and Mr. McAvoy as a young doctor who falls under his sway.

“The movie has been so good for our careers,” Mr. McAvoy, 28, said recently. “So it’s ridiculous not to use that to help.”

[. . . .]At the end of the year he and Keira Knightley portray the tragic lovers in the film adaptation of the Ian McEwan novel “Atonement.”

[. . . . } By his own account, Mr. McAvoy is a great reader. Last summer, just before “The Last King of Scotland” had its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, he was a fan of “A Dance to the Music of Time,” Anthony Powell’s great 12-volume novel cycle of 20th-century English life. This time, his current reading was work related and a bit different.

“It’s one of the most successful books in recent times,” he said. “And it’s just terrible. It’s like someone’s released a book called ‘How Not to Write a Novel,’ and this guy has got that book and used it as a blueprint. Atrocious and successful. And I can’t say what it is because they’re making a movie of it, so I agreed to read it.”

As for the movie, “Hopefully not,” he said with a wry smile. “Hopefully, I’ll get out from under that one.”

[. . . .]
When Mr. McAvoy was 7, his parents divorced. His father walked out of his life. His mother, a psychiatric nurse, stayed close but took him to live with her parents in the vast Drumchapel housing projects in Glasgow. There’s stuff here for trauma, but Mr. McAvoy doesn’t see it that way.

“I think I was very lucky to be brought up by people who were the products of socialist democracy,” he said, and he means it.

In the course of talking about the imminent onset of fame and possible wealth, he referred more than once to a contemporary feel-good bromide that sticks in his craw. “This thing of telling kids, ‘You can be whatever you want to be’ — it’s really unfair,” he said. “Because they can’t. They have the right to try, but it’s not necessarily going to happen. When you make everything possible and all possibilities achievable, you leave someone no excuse to fail. That’s not healthy, I think. It’s a lie.”

He said that he credited a decent secondary school and two music teachers with nudging him toward the possibility of a creative life, but that he was sharply aware of the many students who left the same school with nothing. That awareness informs his view of the world and of his own good fortune. It’s what Mr. Palansky was referring to when he described Mr. McAvoy as someone “who feels the burden of the world.”

But that doesn’t mean he can’t be funny about it. Asked how becoming famous enough to be recognized on the street had affected his life, he pointed out that he was no Jude Law, but said: “My time is taken up a hell of a lot with saying ‘Hi’ to everybody. I try to be polite. But it takes away from the time you’d like to spend with your wife and your friends. So that is a strange thing.”

Stranger still, he said, is the way fame has become the only ambition for too many young people, and worse yet is the deification of movie stars. “Not,” he added with a grin, “that anybody’s deified me yet.”

Sunday, May 6, 2007

"For I am fearfully and wonderfully made"

This quote from Psalm 137 appears twice in James Martin's "My Life with the Saints." Grace builds upon nature, he says, paraphrasing Aquinas. All of us find our vocations in following what "God awakens primarily through our desires." (383) We do what we do best when it is that and only that which we can do best, to be our best, for ourselves and those around us. I read this combination of memoir and biography this morning on a quiet Sunday, interrupted by nails being driven from the omnipresent construction down the street, unloading groceries, and hearing from upstairs Niall's squeaks of glee at a presumably Dodger-driven score. At least it wasn't the omnipresent mouse in the pantry for once.

I think of how little I get to do what I once might have called "spiritual reading." Reading Fr. Martin's book, I was taken for a few hours into a series of encounters that he uses to link his own spiritual journey with that of various holy people, canonized or not, over the course of a life that seems to have been roughly contemporary to mine. I find that when an author's life parallels my own chronology -- not that this happens much-- I tend to pay closer attention. He grew up outside Philly, went to Wharton (the famed business college at Penn) and then worked a few years for GE in some corporate drone coveted position he soon found did not meet his dreams of whatever vague ideas he thought Wall Street would bring his twenty-something life to fulfill. He started thinking about a change, happened upon the last few minutes of a PBS documentary on Thomas Merton one night while sitting on a dreary beige couch, and two years later entered the Jesuits. A sign of how rare this is nowadays when he was one of two novices that year in his province.

His straightforward account articulated well for me what I had noticed but never really comprehended during my college years at Loyola Marymount among the few Jesuits that once in a while I met or had for teachers. Their practicality, matter-of-fact levelheadedness, and simple commitment to as some redneck comedian's slogan goes, 'get it done.' No dramatic piety, no papist skulduggery, no flowing cassocks or overwrought flair. Fr. Martin tells of 17 different men and women whose lives inspired him, not in some saccharine moment of divine inspiration or even Joycean epiphany, but through hard-won truths eked out in a prison ministry, a Nairobi assignment, a Kingston ghetto, the Cabrini-Green projects, a philosophy class, a wish to find a better toy than Sea Monkeys or a swimming Tony the Tiger, or-- I found this particularly poignant-- his own frustration at not being able to go for a PhD and become a full-time biblical scholar due to a physical limitation he developed during his studies that prevents him from typing more than half an hour daily.

Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, along with Fr. Pedro Arrupe, St. Aloysius Gonzaga, and the Ugandan Martyrs, gain from Fr. Martin's energy; the more familiar saints such as Mary, Joseph, Joan of Arc, or Peter come off less engagingly, dulled as they may be by familiarity. It's a sign of the Church that Day and Merton may speak most powerfully to us while the Vatican treats their less-than-conventional pre-conversion hijinks cautiously and prefers to downplay their canonization prospects. I also note that Day and Merton's dissolute lives seem practically the norm for those of us of a later generation of that century. This may mean we need Ss. Tom & Dorothy now more than ever. Reading this also reminds me to finally open up my twenty-year-old copy of "The Long Loneliness," check out the more recent Paul Elie's book on Merton, Day, Flannery O'Connor, and Walker Percy "The Life You Save" (although it got mixed reviews) and to get the "Intimate Merton" anthology of published and unpublished journals. Amidst bestsellers like "The Da Vinci Code," "The Celestine Prophecy," "The Five People You Meet in Heaven," and the hundred million readers of Paolo Coelho (unfathomable appeal judging from an admittedly scattershot New Yorker profile by Larissa MacFarquhar, whose articles I used to like in the now extinct "Lingua Franca") perhaps wisdom has retreated behind the covers of less garish appeals for our time and money. Still, I guess New Age folderol's better than following the antics of Paris and Brittany and speaks to our longing for meaning and comfort.

We use the term hagiography today as a pejorative, unless we're traditionalists, theologians, and/or medievalists. But Martin reminds me in his carefully composed thoughts the true root of religion: to "re-bind" us to what we know deep down has been severed and demands healing. Johannes Baptist Metz, a German theologian, reflects: "All too easily we live alienated from the truth of our being. The threatening nothingness of our poor infinity and infinite poverty drives us here and there among the distractions of everyday cares." (qtd. 246-7) Like any of us, this Jesuit has his moments of what Ignatius of Loyola defined as "dryness," and one of the best chapters here explores how the first Jesuit himself learned to distinguish what led the heart away from peace and what drew the spirit towards consolation. The "discernment" at the core of the Jesuit form of contemplation within action, of the Spiritual Exercises' "composition of place" that stimulates the imagination so the seeker can more fully experience the whole sensory array of encountering the holy beyond intellectual comprehension or affective appreciation is conveyed well.

Martin, near the end, paraphrases Merton. The "false self" is what we present to the world, what we think will please others. The "true self" is who we are before God. How to be a saint? Sanctity is discovering our reality within, what we are called to be-- the derivation of "vocation," after all. Merton: "For me to be a saint means to be myself." (387)

After typing this above, Layne came home to find in my holy stupor that I had neglected to unpack a bag of eggs, meat, and veggies that obviously needed my attention more than this rarified set of musings did, for the mundane nature of my chosen vocation of the life of Martha and not Mary. Niall, meanwhile, lamented with wailing and gnashing of teeth his own Job-like fate as a witness to the indifference of the gods as the Dodgers slumped into a non-Jesuit form of detachment from earthly cares. For the Jesuits, "indifference" is a virtue, to be led as the Spirit wishes. For a few other elite men, paid salaries that would feed half the twenty thousand Jesuits and forty thousand Calcuttians, their disdain for justifying their own reward from Mammon-- and those of us who pay their keep at Chavez Ravine by slavish attendance-- consigns them to if not the lowest circle of the inferno than at least a longer distance from the race for the NL West pennant. Dante's first circle, for the comparatively less culpable fornicators like Paolo and Francesca, found our lovers-- "that day we no longer read" as they dropped their romance of Lancelot and put contemplation into action. Canto V saw its season ticket holders chasing a pennant too, perpetually ahead of them, whipping in the breeze.

Faith in fate, when so much seems out of our hands as our feet race about towards a goal that ever recedes, is no easier for Mother Teresa than me, I found to some surprise. Apparently after a "locution," hearing the voice of God on a train in 1946 that moved her to leave the convent walls for a life in Calcutta's slums, she suffered fifty years of darkness, estrangment from God, unsure that there was even such a source. Which makes her determination more admirable, hidden as her own "dark night of the soul" apparently has been until a recent biographer unveiled it.

The cover of this book I found particularly well chosen to illustrate the humanity and everyday weaknesses of people we easily place on pedestals and lacquer as icons. John Nava's tapestries (woven in Bruges, the medieval center of such artistry) of the "Communion of the Saints" decorate the walls of our downtown Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. I have only seen them twice, during breaks in thanksgiving from jury duty across the street cattycorner from the courthouse. The images I have reproduced of a couple of the panels fail to do justice to their immense scale and intimate nuance. But they, like no other iconography I've seen, convey what saints must look like. Hard as it is to conceive, they are familiar, without nimbus. Poised, their gaze fixed on the center altar and a Presence that we cannot verify, nonetheless they in their composed peace show us where to look. And, Martin and Nava remind us, they who contemplate the beatific vision look just like us.