Irish Papist

Irish Papist

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Domesticity of the Dead

Recently, I learned that my wife is Irish.

Well, not completely Irish. But her researches into her ancestry have taught her that, despite her Sicilian maiden name, the blood that streams through her veins is predominately Irish.

I'm surprised how much this means to me. I always liked the fact that she comes from America, since I am an admirer of that great nation. (And I think there is something uniquely attractive about a woman who speaks with an American accent. It's so peppy.) But to learn that she does, after all, belong to the same people as me seems to add a whole new dimension to our relationship.

She's also come upon some old photographs of her family-- for instance, her grandmother and grandfather on their wedding day. Looking at the picture of the handsome couple, and remembering having stood by her grandmother's grave only this year, has only deepened a conviction that I've been feeling a lot lately-- that family folklore, family traditions and family memories are something precious beyond words.

What is depressing about a graveyard? Not so much the presence of death, I would venture, as the absence of memory. The names and dates upon the tombstones are so bald, when they can even be made out. They tell you so little about the people who lie beneath them. And how many of them are ever visited?

I think that the dead live on, not so much in tombstones and epitaphs, as in the stories and anecdotes and sayings that survive in the mouths of their children, grand-children and great-grandchildren. (Or those of their surviving relatives, if they didn't have children themselves.)

It seems strange to me that we tend to look only a couple of generations back. How many of us know anything about our great-great-grandparents? And yet we wouldn't exist without them. Their bodies and their efforts and their sacrifices gave us life. Our sense of affinity with our kindred is so intense, why should it evaporate at so few removes?

Another thing I find fascinating about family folklore is its evanescence. Most of the time it isn't written anywhere. It's not in any archive or library or chart. When it's gone, it's gone. And it belongs to nobody except its possessors; it's entirely in trust with them.

There is also something quite fascinating about the concept of a family-- I mean, an extended family. It may be ridiculous to think like this, but I find it interesting that there is no central bureau or authority for an extended family-- there is no headquarters for all the Millers in the world, or all the Donovans in the world, or all the Coopers in the world. We live in such a bureaucratic world that this actually seems odd to me. I take pleasure in thinking about it. Nobody owns a family name, and yet it's an affinity much more real than being a member of any corporation or club.

I could write so much more on this subject. I could write about my own family background, and my strong sense that my own life is only the latest chapter in a story which features so many other actors, so many other episodes, stretching back beyond the horizon of memory. But, for now, I'm savouring the fact that it turns out my wife was Irish before she even met me.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

I Don't Know If I'm Right, But I'm Dead Sure You're Wrong

I like the song 'Extreme Ways', which is played over the end credits of all the Jason Bourne saga films. I was listening to it on one of my movie soundtracks albums, and I felt the whim to read a little bit about its composer, Moby.

I was interested to learn that he considers himself a Christian (sort of), but that-- of course!-- he abhors the Religious Right. What I find interesting about this is that he is, theoretically, rather disarmingly anti-dogmatic about his own beliefs, or inclinations towards belief. He even says "I certainly wouldn't crticize anyone else's beliefs". Except the religious right. That goes without saying.

If I have to choose between the church-going Christian whose life is in flagrant defiance of all he professes in church, and the solo Christian who is convinced he knows what Jesus really meant and everybody in 'conventional religions' is wrong, I would choose the first without a moment's thought. There is far less pride at work in the first case.

Here are the relevant paragraphs from Wikipedia:

In a 2003 BBC interview, Moby spoke about his encounter with the Gospels: "In about 1985 I read the teachings of Christ and was instantly struck by the idea that Christ was somehow divine. When I say I love Christ and love the teachings of Christ, I mean that in the most simple and naïve and subjective way. I'm not saying I'm right, and I certainly wouldn't criticize anyone else's beliefs." In an interview with, Moby said, "I can't really know anything. Having said that, though, on a very subjective level I love Christ. I perceive Christ to be God, but I predicate that with the knowledge that I'm small and not nearly as old as the universe that I live in. I take my beliefs seriously for myself, but I would be very uncomfortable trying to tell anyone that I was right."

In a September 20, 2006 audio interview with Sojourners magazine, he says, "I read the New Testament, specifically the gospels and I was struck at their divinity, feeling that humans could not have figured this out on their own. We're just not bright enough."[74] He also discusses his faith on his own blog. On January 19, 2007, in his reaction to seeing Alexandra Pelosi's Friends of God, a film about evangelicalism in the United States, Moby writes, "The movie reminded me just how utterly disconnected the agenda of the evangelical Christian right is from the teachings of Christ."[75] At times, he has been reluctant to use the word "Christian" to define himself, due to its ambiguity, but has self-identified as a Christian in interviews related to his faith.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Louis MacNeice on Art

Hundreds of millions of words have been written, spoken and (probably) mimed on the nature of Art. Indeed, speculating and pontificating and blabbering about the nature of Art is all good clean fun, and does no harm, as long as nobody forgets to check on the casserole.

But I don't think anyone has ever written more sensibly on the subject than Louis MacNeice did in these lines from 'Autumn Sequel', a long poem that occasionally reaches heights as sublime as anything in poetry. I first came across it in one edition of The Oxford Book of English Verse, where one section was printed as an epilogue to the entire book. Some lines from this section were quoted, and indeed become a plot point, in an episode of the BBC comedy Rev (which follows the vicissitudes of an inner-city Church of England vicar).

You may not have heard of Louis MacNeice. He was a Northern Irish poet who spent most of his life and career in Britain. He lived until 1963. He was left-wing without being silly about it. Actually, a distaste for ideology was one of his themes. He wrote radio plays and other programmes for the BBC and the last one aired as he lay dying. He was fond of the booze and the ladies. His poetry is notable for its range of references-- he had a formidable classical education, but he was just as interested in all the banalities of twentieth-century life as he was in fifth-century Athens. Like Auden and Eliot and many others, his flights of genius are mixed up with a lot of wilfully obscure modernistic rubbish. His best poem is probably 'Snow'.

This extract is new to the internet, as far as I can tell. I hope the MacNeice estate consider it fair use; and, if they don't consider it fair use, I hope they don't notice it. (The poem is written in the demanding format of terza rima, the stanza form used by Dante in his Divine Comedy. If you don't see what's so demanding about it, try writing thirty lines in it yourself.)

Minx or mother, old witch, young coquette
And often as not a nun, the Muse will never
Conform to type, she uses a finer net

Than the fishing laws allow, she is not clever
So much as cunning, she often walks alone,
Sleep means as much to her as high endeavour,

And she can stare for hours at a polished stone
And see all heaven in the grain of a table;
At times she is monolingual, monotone,

At others mistress of the Tower of Babel;
She prefers the halt and the blind, the fanatical ones
And the simple-minded to the merely able,

She favours dying kings and setting suns
But also the egg that hatches, the lips that kiss.
She loves the drone of bees and the thud of heavy guns,

She will pirouette on a wire over the last abyss,
Is equally prone to cast the truth in your teeth
And slip it aside in a gabbled parenthesis.

Nor is she the best of employers, it being beneath
Her pride to pay on the day or sometimes at all.
She can pay a thousandfold with a funeral wreath.

Anyhow, it is employment, stand or fall.
And all I am fit for now, which is saying little
But claiming almost everything; life may pall,

She can restore its savour; it may be brittle,
She can prevent it breaking; it may be blind.
She can touch and cure its eyes with clay and spittle.

Post-script, written a day later: This post has received three views, according to my statistics. Very discouraging.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Togetherness and Difference

Two things have constantly pulled at cross-purposes in me: one, a deep homing instinct, a desire beyond words to be at home always, with the same beloved faces, the same familiar shapes and sounds about me; the other, an impulse to seek hard things to do, to go on far quests and fight for lost causes. -- Patrick Pearse

Pearse's words came to me this morning, at Mass, as I looked at the familiar faces in the communion line, and as I found myself thinking of two conflicting-- or apparently conflicting-- emotions in my own heart. I will try to describe them in turn.

I am always (or often) struck by the intense sense of togetherness during Holy Communion-- a togetherness in which differences seem to be, not obliterated, but transcended. "Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all."

And I found myself thinking of the intense longing for togetherness that exists (I believe) in all people. It may seem a banal reference, but the film that always comes to mind when I ponder this topic is The Breakfast Club. Even though this is a fairly cheesy teen drama, I don't think I've ever seen a film that is more cathartic as an experience-- because it is an extremely accomplished example of that timeless dramatic theme, the theme of a group people, who seem utterly different, finding that they have far more in common than they ever suspected. In the movie, in case you don't know, a nerd, an athlete, a punk, an eccentric and a glamour girl spend a Saturday in school detention. Probably every viewer identifies with one or the other-- I always identified with the nerd. But, by the final scenes, you identify with every one of them, and the final freeze frame-- where the punk character, who initially seemed utterly detestable, punches his fist in the air as he walks away from the school- expresses the viewer's own sense of euphoria.

Surely everybody has had the same experience, when they have had a long conversation with someone they didn't know very well, or even someone who they positively disliked, and come away amazed at how much affinity, how much common human feeling, is still possible between them. Very often, we only realize that we only disliked the person because we suspected he or she disliked us. Whenever I've had this experience, the sense of emotional release is always intoxicating.

Friedrich Nietzsche, in The Birth of Tragedy, suggested that tragedy (the dramatic genre) moves us as it does because, through the emotion of pity and fellow-feeling, it releases us for a moment from the prison of individuality and plunges us into the sea of common humanity-- as he put it, it rips away "the veil of Maya". (A Hindu term. As far as I understand, it means the illusion that holds us back from union with the Absolute).

So I feel, as I believe everybody feels, this deep yearning for communion with others-- but, like Patrick Pearse, I am constantly aware of another emotion that seems in complete opposition to this one. That is an exultation in diversity and difference, and a protectiveness towards diversity and difference, and an anxiety that diversity and difference will be eroded. I cherish to an extreme degree the difference betweeen the sexes, and the difference between national cultures, and the difference between youth and age, and different occupations, and different ways of life, and (almost) every other sort of difference.

But the funny thing is...although these two emotions seem in contradiction, I feel a strong faith that they are not. I feel a strong faith that there is a true universalism which is deeper and more meaningful than the shallow kind of universalism, the sort that wants to do away with all ethnic loyalties and gender differences other and social distinctions.

It seems to me that this harmony between the particular and the universal is one of the things that story-telling and other forms of art try to achieve, consciously or unconsciously. The Breakfast Club is only one of many, many examples.

And, in turn, one of the sources of my religious faith is the perception that life has depths such as these. There is simply too much 'going on' in the human condition for me not to believe that there is a deep artistry in evidence there.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Excellent Letter in The Irish Times

Time and time again, a comparison is being drawn between those who oppose same-sex marriage and those who opposed the African-American Civil Rights movement. A letter from Maria Mhic Mheanmain in today's Irish Times provides a much better counter-comparison.

Arguments of the form that X (which is controversial) is just like Y (which is universally condemned) are rarely sound. Any two situations are generally very different.

Sir, – Peter Dunne (July 12th) draws a comparison between the denial of service of African Americans in the southern states of the US in the 1960s and the Ashers bakery controversy. This analogy is incorrect. The customer was not denied service, nor was he denied it on the basis of his sexual orientation. There is no evidence that Ashers bakery was even aware of the customer’s sexual orientation. The bakery merely refused to write a political slogan that went against its beliefs and supports something which is contrary to the law of the land. I would suggest a more accurate analogy would be the refusal of a bakery in a loyalist area to provide a cake with the slogan “Tiocfaidh ár lá” for a nationalist customer. – Yours, etc,



Glen Abhainn Park,


Co Meath.

(Another letter on the same page mocks Breda O'Brien for calling Bert and Ernie Muppets. I never really watched either Sesame Street or The Muppet Show, but it only took about two seconds' research on the internet to find out that Muppets appeared on both shows. I would feel embarrassed for the writer if the tone of the letter was not so smug and patronising.)

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

I've Just Watched Inception...

...for possibly the eighth or ninth time (at least), and for the first time I felt I actually understood everything that was going on and understood how the different layers of dreams related to each other.

It's funny to realise, just from looking at the dates involved, that I had started corresponding with my wife about a month before the film was released, and it would be several months before we met for the first time. (I saw it in the cinema at least twice, and perhaps three times). I didn't remember that at all.

Inception captivates me for many reasons. Partly because it's simply an amazing film. But also because its themes are so very potent, at least to me.

There is the 'journey into the inner self' theme. At least two of the characters-- Leonardo Di Caprio's character and Cillian Murphy's character-- make this journey. There is nothing more exciting than the idea that the soul is a vast, deep and mysterious territory-- vaster, deeper and more mysterious than we can ever imagine. In The Interior Castle (a book I could never finish), St. Teresa of Avila says that, no matter how large we image the interior castle (which is our soul), we can never adequately picture how vast it is. And along with this idea, there is the related idea that in the depths of the self-- on some lonely beach, or on a mountain height, or in a sunlit attic, or (as in the film) at a father's death-bed-- you find your encounter with the ultimate secret of our soul. The cathartic pay-off is immense. (The same idea works well with horror, although here it is your ultimate fear-- which is not simply the thing that scares you the most.)

There is the 'interior drama' theme, which is related, but not quite the same thing. This is simply the idea of an imaginary world taking physical shape. It can be a rather horrific idea if it's purely solipsistic and confined to the prison of one's self. But, in Inception, it's a shared dream, which makes all the difference. There is a not unpleasant vertigo in the idea that mind and matter are the same substance-- and really, what philosopher has ever been able to separate them? Why does Prospero's "such things as dreams are made on" speech in The Tempest fill us with such a delicious melting feeling? I tried to write an "interior drama" story myself, with The Man Who Could Make Worlds, as serialised on this blog some time ago. (I must return to it some time.) Alas, not with a great degree of success.

Dream-within-dream stories are always a winner. A little known episode of the nineteen-eighties Hammer House of Horror TV series-- 'Rude Awakening' with Denholm Eliot, where a man keeps waking from a dream into another dream, and keeps getting arrested for the same murder-- is eminently worth seeing if you ever get the chance.

And finally, there is the "pure joy of creation" theme. Ariadne can't walk away from the job, even when she knows it's the sensible thing to do, because dream architecture is "just...pure creation". Is there any ecstasy in the world as complete as the ecstasy of creation? It's as though, when we create something beyond ourselves, we exist ourselves more than at any other time.

Even though Inception is far from being my favourite film, or even in the top flight of my favourites, it does have a rather unique power to stimulate this pure urge to create-- in me, anyway. (It stimulates the urge. I can't say it's ever actually spurred me on to any activity.)

And the men are all dressed so snappily, too.

Rarely has a film lived up to its hype as successfully as Inception does. Even an incorrigible contrarian like me couldn't find any reason to dislike it. And that's saying a lot.

(Afterthought: When you think about it, there is something dream-like about every moment of our existence. I suppose you could describe life as being 'dream-like' in many ways, but I mean it in a very particular sense right now. Life is dream-like because, at any given moment, we don't really know when or where we are, we have a very partial grip of reality. When I was a teenager, I always had a plan to study the encyclopedia and other books until I had reached a kind of plateau of perpetual awareness. I would experience every moment of my life with full awareness of its historical, scientific, cultural, geographical, and other factors. I would always be aware of the rotation of the Earth, the configuration of the stars, the historical epoch I occupied, the circulation of my blood, the source of the food I was eating, the clothes I was wearing, and so on. Of course, this never came to be. I live every moment of my life with very little understanding of how it fits into the great Scheme of Things. But, even if I had memorised the encyclopedia, the same thing would be true.)

And I Guess It's Gonna Be a Long, Long Time....

I've spent a lot of time on this blog (and elsewhere) complaining about modern hymns. It struck me today that I should see if I can do any better.

So I'm posting this just in case-- and it seems unlikely, but who knows?-- there's anyone reading who composes music and who could be Swann to my Flanders, Sullivan to my Gilbert, Elton John to my Bernie Taupin. And-- if you are such a person, and you come across this blog post some time in the future, and you're interested-- please contact me no matter how much time has elapsed.