December 30, 2004

On Reading Different Genres

All of you have undoubtedly experienced types of books that you simply cannot read, or types of movies you cannot watch. In movies, for example, I have yet to be entertained by any film about organized crime--no matter how "well made" no matter how wonderful--they leave me cold. Two notable exceptions are the comedy Some Like it Hot which needs organized crime to drive the improbable plot, and Pulp Fiction which like most of Tarrantino is a live-action cartoon.

So also in literature, I am left cold by certain genres--two in particular. I have never cottoned to the "spy story." And to this date there has been no exception to this--Le Carré, Ludlum, Deighton, Hall, Buchan, Clancy, you name it, I don't care for it. This goes all the way back to Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent and even includes The Man Who was Thursday, which, while not strictly speaking a "spy" novel, partakes of too many of its tropes for me to really enjoy it. My dislike of it is so strong that it even includes redoubtable Golden Age Mystery writers like Agatha Christie who wrote some deplorable Fu Manchu-like "spy" stories. Now, I don't feel too bad about not liking this particular group of things--after all it is a fairly contained limited genre. Yes, it would be nice to appreciate Rogue Male and some of Greene's "entertainments" but if it is not to be so, I can live with that.

One that I find more disturbing though, and the reason for these thoughts, is sea stories. In this I have had a few minor breaktthroughs--Conrad's Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness, Billy Budd and even some parts of Moby Dick. (I once read an edited version that removed all the flensing and rendering and whale anatomy and boiled the story down to its bare bones and found the whole thing a compelling allegory.) And of course, one of my favorite books of the Bible--Jonah--begins with a sea-story.

But, in particular, the sea stories I would like to like and would like to have reason to read are some that are extremely popular around St. Blogs (another reason for mentioning them.) I have tried now eight or nine times to make it through Master and Commander. Every time I am occasionally pleased by the language and invariably confounded with the glacial pace of the action. Page after page after page of a description of two boors at a chamber music recital. Or maybe they aren't boors, as I progress through the work. But what I lack is a compelling reason for continuing through the story. The movie version of these characters I found even more off-putting. As I have descirbed it to friends--a soggy Ivory-Merchant wannabe with characters out of Gosford Park.

Nevertheless, people whose writing I enjoy and whose insights I find notable enjoy these books. Some seem to enjoy them as much as I might enjoy Tolkien or C.S. Lewis. Good writing, is, after all, good writing. And it may be only a matter of time before I grow into an appreciation for these books. After all, it took me twenty years of trying before I became an ardent life-long admirer of Henry James and of Nathaniel Hawthorne. So, there's always hope.

What I'd like to ask as a favor is that those who truly admire the work write more about it. Cite passages, give me some insight into why these are compelling and interesting reading. Share your favorite moments. I'll be stopping by at least two places frequently. And I'll post the occasional reminder. I love the language of the books, now I want to have the drive to get over whatever it is about them that I find so alienating. That will require some introspection, of course. But, in all, it probably boils down to a lack of charity and a great deal too much judgment being exercised. That is usually the source of problems. And yet, I do, in some things follow the great Thomist line that knowledge brings an increase of love (I understand that the reference is to matters divine, but I think it is true of all matters not sinful). So, perhaps if I know more, I can break down my resistance and begin to appreciate an oeuvre that truly seems to be worth the effort. The tantalizing through of twenty unread books, presents a vista of possibility for me--a vista that I truly do want to explore. So I look for a reason.

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December 29, 2004

Revisiting CE and BCE

It's odd the way things come in cycles and this week I've had my attention focused on this issue twice. The first time was with Sr. Malone's book (reviewed below). The second was as I was writing a reflection of this scripture from St. John:

"He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not.
He came to his own home, and his own people received him not. " (John 1: 10-11)

Of this passage I wrote:

. . . historians have started to use a dating system that dates everything B.C.E. (Before Common Era) and C.E. (Common Era) because the Latin phrase "Anno Domini" or A.D., the Year of the Lord, is "not sufficiently inclusive." What could be more inclusive than salvation for all who believe in Him? What could possibly be more inclusive that honoring Him who created all.

(The text above reflects the edits suggested by the editor and accepted by me.)

What I originally wrote may vanish because it is probably not well-conducive to serene reflection; however the editor of the column wrote to me and here, in a slightly altered version, is what I replied:

My point was, of course to emphasize the phrase "And the world knew Him not." That's the world we live in today perhpas even more so than the world of Jesus. At that time, the transmittal of news was limited to caravan and personal communication--it was at leasat understandable. In today's world it is more like an enforced amnesia--more like "We knew Him, but we're trying our best to forget Him."

I should emphasize that I do not wish not to criticize those who find themselves in academia and for the sake of academic survival must accept the system imposed upon them. What I want to point out is that it is not a "value-neutral" inclusive act. That is--it is not as though this action has no ramifications. There is great harm done when Jesus Christ is excised from historical memory by academic fiat in the name of some illusory "inclusiveness." If the dating system still dates from the traditional A.D. (even if the calculation was originally wrong) then we are still saying (no matter what the letters we use) that the history of the world was so altered by this event that we begin our dating there. Were we really to try to place a value-neutral date for beginning our chronology, it would have to be something like the date of the Shang scapulomancy fragments (earliest written language), or perhpas if all were amenable the establishment of the Sumerian civilization. And, perhaps, if academia is to have its way, we will see that proposition in the near future. If so, I suspect that it will be confined to the rarified atmosphere of the ivory tower. I would suggest that the usages BC and BCE also be confined by popular demand to the post-modernist Christ-amnesiac academic establishment. Those of us outside it should make every effort to remember Jesus even in so small a thing as two letters after a date.

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December 28, 2004

Let All Creation Praise Him!

We find reasons for praise and sources of wonder in the oddest places. This after it was once again in Mandelbrot's book.

from The (Mis)Behavior of Markets
Benoit Mandelbrot and Richard L. Hudson

It is an extraordinary feature of science that the most diverse, seemingly unrelated, phenomena can be described with the same mathematical tools. The same quadratic equations with thich the ancients drew right angles to build their temples can be used today by a banker to calculate the yield to maturity of a new, two-year bond. The same techniques of calculus developed by Newton and Leibniz two centuries ago to study the orbits of Mars and Mercury can be used today by a civil engineer to calculate the maximum stress on a new bridge, or the volume of water to pass beneath it. Now, none of this means that the bridge, river, and planets work in the same way; or that an archaeologist at the Acropolis should help price an Accenture bond. . . . But the variety of natural phenomna is boundless while, despite all appearances to the contrary, the number of really distinct mathematical concepts and tools at our disposal is surprisingly small. When a man goes to clear a jungle he has relatively few types of tools: To cut, perhaps a machete; to knock down, a bulldozer; to burn, fire. Science is like that. When we explore the vast realms of natural and human behavior, we find our most useful tools of measurement and calculation are based on surprisingly few basic ideas. When a man has a hammer, all he sees around him are nails to hit. So it should be no great surprise that, with our small number of effective mathematical tools, we can find analogies between a wind tunnel and a Reuters screen.

This brief passage inspired in me a diffuse chain of thought. If these things may all be described with a limited number of tools (as Mandelbrot maintains) then the infinite diversity and complexity of phenomena that we see about are are really all variations of a few key themes.

I will not contend that this speculation proves anything at all, but merely that looking upon this possible conclusion, one can see for a moment the image of the mind of the maker--infinitely varied and yet discrete and accessible. That all of these varied things should have in common some underlying language, some limited group of descriptors either means that we are not truly describing them, or their relationships are by far more important than their perceived differences.

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Well-seasoned Stock (Market)

That's kurtosis, which is neither ketosis, thankfully, nor kenosis.

Let's face it. One of the reasons you stop by here is that you want to see what oddity I will trot out next, what quirky thing presented itself to my warped imagination as a thing of interest.

Well today we have Kurtosis and Mandelbrot's analysis of the stock market.

from The (Mis)Behavior of Markets
Benoit Mandelbrot and Richard L. Hudson

Statisticians like to condense a lot of confusing information into one clear talking point, and so they have devised a single number to measure what we have been discussing--how closely real data fit the ideal bell curve. They call it kurtosis, for the Greek kyrtos, or curved. But we can think of it as how much "spice" is in the statistical broth. A perfect, unseasoned bell curve has a kurtosis of three. A hot, fait-tailed curve of the sort we have been finding would have a higher spice number, while a curve that had been boiled into a dull paste would have a lower number. According to a 2003 book by Wim Schoutens, a Catholic University of Leuven mathematician, the daily variaiton in another common U.S. stock-market index, the Standard&Poor's 500, had a kurtosis of 43.36 between 1970 and 2001. This is, by the bland standard of the statistical kitchen, a five-alarm chili. If you throw out the spiciest data point, the October 1987 crash, you still get an uncomfortably hot dish: a kurtosis of 7.17. The high-tech NASDAQ index: 5.78. The French CAC-40: 4.63. All are above the Gaussian norm of three.

Hope that whipped up the Holiday appetite dulled from too many sweets and too much turkey. Get out your stock (market) pot and boil yourself up some Kurtosis of 1987!

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December 27, 2004

St Blogs Prayer Network

Please Visit, contribute, and pray.

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In Preparation for New Year's

and making resolutions that matter and prayers that are worthwhile, I present once again from the writings of St. Josemaria Escriva:

The Seventeen Evidences of a Lack of Humility

1. To think that what one says or does is better than what others say or do

2. To always to want to get your own way

3. To argue with stubbornness and bad manners whether you are right or wrong

4. To give your opinion when it has not been requested or when charity does not demand it

5. To look down on another's point of view

6. Not to look on your gifts and abilities as lent

7. Not to recognize that you are unworthy of all honors and esteem, not even of the earth you walk on and things you possess

8. To use yourself as an example in conversations

9. To speak badly of yourself so that others will think well of you or contradict you

10. To excuse yourself when you are corrected

11. To hide humiliating faults from your spiritual director, so that he will not change the impression he has of you

12. To take pleasure in praise and compliments

13. To be saddened because others are held in higher esteem

14. To refuse to perform inferior tasks

15. To seek to stand out

16. To refer in conversation to your honesty, genius, dexterity, or professional prestige

17. To be ashamed because you lack certain goods

Lord. grant me eyes to see my own faults and to desire to make them good. Let me see how I fail in humility and give me the strength and the courage to make it right. Lord, let me be what you would have me be--nothing more, nothing less. And let me not pretend to anything more than my identity in Christ. And grant me the willingness to abandon myself in the pursuit of that Pearl of Great Price, the One who matters. Amen

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Heaven and Hell

I liked this quotation from Peter Kreeft:

"Jesus says the way to hell is broad and many find it and that the way to heaven is narrow and few find it. And he means it: you don't get to heaven simply by being born, by being nice, or by oozing into an eternal growth experience. But "few" here does not mean that less than half of mankind will be saved. For God speaks as our Father, not our statistician. Even one child lost is too many, and the rest saved are too few. The good shepherd who left his ninety-nine sheep safe at home to rescue his one lost sheep found even 99 percent salvation too "few". "

And this may be the beginning of many pointless maunderings on the subject. They were started by reading at Christifideles (see below). I asked myself, what do I believe about Heaven and Hell.

For one, I believe they exist. What one or the other is, I really don't know, because it occurred to me that while I accept their existence as an article of faith, they don't occupy a large portion of my thought-world. In fact, they occupy practically nothing at all. Except to acknowledge that they exist and either is a possible destination for me personally, they have no real presence in my devotional life. I guess that is because even if they did not exist, I would have no excuse for a lack of loving God. The existence or nonexistence or heaven or hell is not instrumental in my belief structure. That is, I believe them, but my belief is not compelled by either of them. My belief is compelled by communication with God through His revelations and prayer.

That isn't to say that they are unimportant or inconsequential. But it has never occurred to me to spend a lot of time thinking about them. I think that this is one of those places where the empirical "facts" of the matter are so limited and so few that spending a lot of time conjuring up images seems counter-productive. I've said the same before about speculating about angels (and have been chastised for it), but I stand by it. There is so little solid material to go on with regard to what constitutes these realms of being that, for me, they would prove unsatisfactory means for loving God more. And that's really what any sort of meditation and prayer should be about, isn't it? If an action detracts from that end, I would do well either to never take it up or to desist at the earliest possible moment.

Nevertheless, I am interested in the informed speculations of people better placed (intellectually and spiritually) about these realms. I do believe because Jesus believed and taught their existence and the Church upholds that same teaching and reinforces it. And I shall continue to read about them from time to time; nevertheless, they might never constitute a center for my faith or my prayer for all the reasons I listed above. And I wonder if they were ever meant to or if they ever did for anyone in an protracted way. It little matters--and I suppose it is one of the reasons that Jesus told us, "My Father's house has many mansions." That mansion allotted for me is all I need be concerned about.

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Marriage in the Resurrection

Go here to read an interesting speculation about the life of the world to come. I don't know quite what to make of it, but it is intriguing and thought-provoking. Don't remember where I found this link, but I think it was through Catholic Light.

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From El Camino Real

Mr. Culbreath makes a real point with this note:

"The real problem today is that there are so many Catholics and so few saints among us. The dearth of saints is without a doubt a chastisement for the rest of us, for God doesn't send graces to those who will not receive them. The Church in America would be thoroughly scandalized by another Saint Francis, to say the least. We know what the present modernist hierarchy would do with his rigid orthodoxy. But what would the wealthy, glitzy, celebrity-making neo-conservative establishment do with his preaching of acesticism, poverty, and obscurity? What would the fire-breathing know-it-all traditionalist attack dogs do with his charity, humility, and obedience? What would the respectable and worldly-wise among us do with his bizarre and other-worldly quirks? "

What wonderful insights for all of us. Thank you.

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Appropriate for the Season

As we approach Epiphany and the brilliant end of the Christmas Season (actually with Baptism of the Lord), we have The Story of the Other Wise Man by Henry Van Dyke.

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Poems by Denise Levertov

I've never been muchh of a fan of Denise Levertov, having considered her poems too heavy handed, too unbalanced, too political. However, I saw a reference in Sister Malone's book and decided to go looking, expecting once again to be appalled. Well, here is a place where I owe Sister Malone a debt of gratitude because I found a few really wonderful relgious-themed poems here. Go and enjoy, and if so, remember to say a small prayer thanking God for Ms. Levertov and for Sister Malone.

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On Tsunami Detection

This morning I heard on NPR that the "Ring of Fire" (basically the Pacific Ocean Basin) is peppered with little buoys that can detect the presence of a Tsunami hours before it makes landfall. In most cases, this would probably be enough time to escape the shoreline and preserve life and limb.

This is not true of the Indian Ocean, although, NPR implied, after this disaster it soon would be. And my thought on the matter was--and then the rich who had access to the mediate and the means to get away would do so and the poor would be left behind to suffer just as they do now. In reality, the poor take the brunt of any disaster--they are disproportionately affected by such things because they lack the means to find out and the means to do anything at all about it even if they do find out. And I wonder what can be done. I suppose that what can be done must be done on a person by person basis. That is, those of us who have are responsible in some measure for those who have not. If I am fleeing to the mountains and my car can hold more than me, perhaps it is incumbent upon me to bring those who cannot so flee.

It is a problem without any easily recognized solution, but it strikes me that there should be something more we can do than stand ready to mop-up afterwards. And when I speak of we, I don't necessarily refer to a corporate body, but to individuals who have the means to make a difference.

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Please pray for the victims of the Sumatran Tsunamis--more than 12,000 dead at this point.

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Walking a Literary Labyrinth

Sister Malone's book is a vexingly disappointing effort, leaving nearly all of Tom's questions unanswered and not truly developing the thesis of the work. The book turns out to be more the literary perusals of a nun at various stages of her life. And while this holds some interest, the difficulty is that she expressly denies the intent and apparently genuinely purposes something different.

Unfortunately she doesn't achieve it. In fact, even as a "biography in letters" as it were, the book fails. There is entirely too little about the substance of what she read and how it influenced her intellectual life in any significant way.

But worse than that are numerous points at which the Sister gives me too much information. For example at one point she tells me that she would rather miss her daily required prayers than to miss her time reading. And while I can sympathize with that viewpoint, it is hardly edifying to conjure up the image of a Nun reading The Cardinal Sins in preference to evening prayer. More than that, we get a nun's lecture on reading erotic literature--by which she means such things as the collected works of John Updike. She then uses this little apparatus to give us a polemic on what is wrong with the Church's teaching on sexuality--the details of which I sha'n't regale you with, but suffice to say that it is the standard diatribe post Humanae Vitae.

Okay, so it is evident that I was never successful in separating the person of the nun from the content of the work, try as I might. Moreover, most of what I found difficult, I would have found difficult to read written by any professing Catholic. It is especially difficult coming as it were from the reserved center of the Church, and, in a way, indicative of present trials in the church. If the core is like this, what can one expect from the periphery?

I think my greatest disappointment (but one I half expected) is the fact that the wonderful and workable symbol of the labyrinth is once again dragged into the camp of those who do not really agree with church teaching. (Although I would say that Sister Malone, despite professed disagreement on many points, certainly seems to walk the walk. I think about the parable Jesus told of the two sons, one of whom said, "Go away, no way I'm going to do that," and then went and did it, the other of whom said, "Right away," and never stirred his bones. Unfortunately our witness is at least two-fold--what our lives teach and what our words teach. It were better were they consonant.)

I like the symbolism of the labyrinth--not the endless Cretan maze of lore--but the long and winding path that at one moment seems directly aimed at the goal and then in a moment takes you swooping off in another direction. That does seem to speak deeply of my spiritual journey. For short segments I'm right on and certain that I'll make it to my goal, and then for wide stretches I'm wandering around uncertain of where the center is and if I'll ever make it. The hope lies in the fact that it is a single path and the center pulls with a pull stronger than any gravity. I'm off the point here, and I'll have to get back to this idea in a different post, but the thrust here is that once again a rich symbol has been usurped by a group with whom I have little in common intellectually.

Sister Malone's book is not a scandal, nor is it a success. What it sets out to do she wanders far from leaving me alone to try to divine the answer to the question as to whether reading has a spirituality and causing me to wonder if the initial assertion of a similarity between reading and other aspects of spirituality is indeed valid. As a lifetime reader, I definitely hope so; unfortunately the book provides no ammunition or support for an exceedingly interesting notion.

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