All posts by sophiamason

For Your—Entertainment?

I got into a mini-combox war over at First Things.  The article by Daniel Mattson, “Why I Don’t Call Myself a Gay Christian,” is well worth the read.  Take a gander at it first for the context.  Here’s the skirmish that followed.

7.30.2012 | 8:34am

TGWWS says:

Oh, oh thank you for this! I’ve often been puzzled as to why people seem to assume that the extra numbers of homosexuals in the arts MUST MEAN that homosexuality tends to bring artistic talent with it as a gift.

Two points as to why the correlation doesn’t automatically validate the assumption:

(1) If this is true [that the extra numbers of homosexuals in the arts MUST MEAN that homosexuality tends to bring artistic talent with it as a gift], then it would be just as valid to say heterosexuals with temptations to promiscuity, and alcoholics, and narcissists are all sinners whose sin tends to bring artistic talent with it as a gift. (Because after all, artists are on average more likely to be all of those things non-artists.)

(2) Why assume that homosexuality makes one more likely to have artistic talent, rather than assume that artistic talent makes you more likely to be homosexual, or that some unnamed third quality has a tendency to produce both artistic talent and homosexual inclinations? Maybe there are persuasive arguments that make the common first assumption more plausible than the other two logical possibilities; but I haven’t seen any.


7.30.2012 | 10:08am

Jon Rowe says:


It could be that artistic talent does make one likelier to be homosexual. But how is that different than saying being homosexual makes it likelier to have artistic talent? We are just observing a correlation. Like growing older and hair loss. And indeed it could be a third thing that causes both. Some part of the brain that is more “turned on” that affects both homosexual orientation and artistic talent. Likewise it’s possible that if you turn that third thing off, you turn off BOTH the homosexual orientation AND the artistic talent.

Re the other issues, the vast majority of heterosexual men are tempted towards promiscuity; it’s just the ones who make it famous — and it doesn’t have to be in art; this is also very common among famous male athletes — who get the opportunity to act on their promiscuity. Joe Six Pack has to deal with the consenting nature of women, and won’t be able to pull off the four figures of lifetime sexual conquests of Mick Jagger or Wilt Chamberlin.

With the alcohol and drugs, I think it’s pretty clear that emotional sensitivity and the need to numb pain is part of the picture with a lot of famous artists.


7.30.2012 | 11:21am

TGWWS says:

Jon Rowe,

I think it’s extremely important in cases of correlation to uncover which of the correlates (if either) is the true cause. To take a (hopefully) less controversial example from the public policy world: Homelessness and mental illness are statistical correlates. Unless you know which one (if either) is the cause, you won’t be able to attack the problem at its root.

In the case of homosexuality and artistic talent, because we as a society look on artistic talent as a good thing, it is easy for those who assume homosexuality to be a cause of artistic talent to claim that homosexuality is, therefore, a good thing. There are many ways in which a thing can be called “good,” but I’m rather wary of any claim that an objective disorder can produce fruits that would not otherwise have been produced. To put that concretely: I suspect that (for example) Cole Porter would have composed just as beautiful music if he had not been a homosexual.

Re the promiscuity: I didn’t connect it with homosexuality in my comment, so I’m not quite sure what you’re saying … I was simply using it as one more example of a sinful behavior (like the abuse of alcohol) that is more common among artists than among on-artists.

Yes, there is something in what you say about alcohol and drugs being used to numb the pain of sensitive artists. But I’m not sure you can say that those things are “needed” (note all the sensitive artists who don’t abuse these things!), and I’m not sure it’s so much the sensitivity per se that needs numbing as it is the suffering. Thus (concretely, for example, again) an artist who is sensitive, but has had a happy childhood, is far less likely to drink or be homosexual than an artist who is equally sensitive, but had a miserable childhood. Who you are is not just about what you’re born with, but also about what you experience.



7.30.2012 | 3:53pm

Jon Rowe says:

“In the case of homosexuality and artistic talent, because we as a society look on artistic talent as a good thing, it is easy for those who assume homosexuality to be a cause of artistic talent to claim that homosexuality is, therefore, a good thing.”

Well, yes. And this is why a lot of you folks are trying to run away from or explain away this observation. I do see artistic talent as a good thing. And I see nothing wrong with homosexuality. The connect of homosexuality with great art, indeed, is one of the “goods” of homosexuality, as far as I’m concerned.

“I suspect that (for example) Cole Porter would have composed just as beautiful music if he had not been a homosexual.”

I suspect not.

“Thus (concretely, for example, again) an artist who is sensitive, but has had a happy childhood, is far less likely to drink or be homosexual than an artist who is equally sensitive, but had a miserable childhood. Who you are is not just about what you’re born with, but also about what you experience.”

You also have to consider bright, emotionally sensitive artistic types, because of that condition, may be likely to view the world in a particular way that makes them more liable to suffer from anxiety or depression regardless of what kind of childhood they had. I think the professional data bears this out. I also think of some really tragic examples of suicides of friends who came from intact middle class families. Miles Davis, admittedly, came from such a family and never had anything in his upbringing that would make him sing the blues and get addicted to drugs.



7.31.2012 | 11:22am

TGWWS says:

Dear Jon Rowe,

“[T[his is why a lot of you folks are trying to run away from or explain away [connect of homosexuality with great art].”

Admittedly. I said more or less this in my previous post. But this is also why folks like you, who see nothing wrong with homosexuality (or even see it as a positive good) are inclined to interpret such studies the way you do without being too careful about the other logical possibilities (as I said above).

In other words … It’s great that we can each admit our motivations for wanting to think that we think, but we MUST ALSO detach from what we wish to be true when we begin to make logical judgments. And I don’t see very many of those who view homosexuality as a good being willing to practice that detachment.

Clearly, we’re just going to disagree on Cole Porter and the many other artists who were or may have been homosexual! However, I suggest that you put to yourself this exercise. Take several artists who are known to have been heterosexual, and ask yourself whether their art would have been greater if their orientation were different. I think not …

“You also have to consider bright, emotionally sensitive artistic types, because of that condition, may be likely to view the world in a particular way that makes them more liable to suffer from anxiety or depression regardless of what kind of childhood they had.”

Absolutely agreed. Self included. BUT, that doesn’t prove much one way or the other on the main question, does it? Or, if anything, it suggests that homosexuality might be a product of sensitivity, and not vice versa.

There’s no reply as of yet.  But I’d be curious to know what other StAR people think about this.

(And that’s StAR people, not Star PeopleCamel case is important.  Oh, you internet!  So full of a number of things …)


When Virtue Pays II: The Right Thing and the Wrong Reason

If it is an acknowledged truth that virtue does pay, it is equally true that to become virtuous for the sake of the payment is practically speaking impossible. Indeed, it is worse than impossible: it is dangerous.

About a quarter of the way through Anna Karenina, Kitty Shtcherbatsky “falls in like” with another girl.

No, they’re not really Russian.  But every time I searched “Anna Karenina” 
all I got were pictures of Elizabeth Swan.

Kitty’s attraction to the girl, Mademoiselle Varenka, is based on Varenka’s “interest in life, a dignity in life,” an interest and a dignity which Kitty cannot feel or share.  Hoping to gain something of the same serenity that Varenka displays, Kitty sets about imitating Varneka’s service of others–with disastrous results.  The consumptive painter whom she wished to help is smitten by her; the painter’s wife grows jealous.  Kitty blames herself.

“And it serves me right! And it serves me right!” Kitty cried quickly, snatching the parasol out of Varenka’s hand, and looking past her friend’s face.
Varenka felt inclined to smile, looking at her childish fury, but she was afraid of wounding her.
“How does it serve you right? I don’t understand,” she said.
“It serves me right, because it was all sham; because it was all done on purpose, and not from the heart. What business had I to interfere with outsiders? And so it’s come about that I’m a cause of quarrel, and that I’ve done what nobody asked me to do. Because it was all a sham! a sham! a sham!…”
“A sham! with what object?” said Varenka gently.
“Oh, it’s so idiotic! so hateful! There was no need whatever for me…. Nothing but sham!” she said, opening and shutting the parasol.
“But with what object?”
“To seem better to people, to myself, to God; to deceive everyone. No! now I won’t descend to that. I’ll be bad; but anyway not a liar, a cheat.”

Kitty committed what Eliot famously calls “the final treason:” she did a good deed for a selfish end, and she is duly punished.

You know you’re wondering.
I’ll tell you.  It’s ye olde 1973 statue of St. Thomas a Becket near St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.
Yeah. (1) Suddenly those Olympic ceremonies seem less of a shock and more of an ongoing trend. 
(2) Paging Bruce Denny. If you need a lawyer I know where to find one.
Oh, wait

The truth of the matter is, most of us would like to be thought well of. The good opinion of others is one of those things which seems desirable in itself; furthermore, it is in some degree necessary to us. Without a moderately good name—without a minimal reputation for honesty, for example—none of us would be able to hold down a job. And for most of us, there is some additional incentive to behave ourselves for our group, whether that be family, faith, school, or country. My siblings and I (for example) were always uber-conscious of behaving ourselves at “grownup” parties, not so much because of what awaited us at home if we didn’t, but because we wanted to be thought of as “Those Joneses!” and not “Those Jones!” Similarly, when John Q. Catholic has an affair and the neighborhood hears of it, his reputation is besmirched AND, in the minds of his neighbors, all other Catholics are tainted by association. Of course, this phenomenon works in positive ways as well. I’ve read it written (wish I could find the source, but no such luck) that one of the great causes of the breakdown of racism in America was black families moving in next door to white ones, and each finding out that the other was, well, normal.

 Well, equally abnormal, anyway.

The problem arises when one’s reputation grows from its humble natural position as (on the one hand) the consequence of one’s virtue and (on the other) the means to some distinct and valid end, and becomes an end in itself—the Kitty Shtcherbatsky case. The danger is that, whenever we become conscious of our reputation as it exists in the minds of others—whenever circumstances bring us to consider the impressions that our actions have made—that we will be tempted to produce more of those impressions, simply for the delightful purpose of being admired. It is true that virtue will pay, but dangerous to assume that virtue will pay.

Fortunately, most people (myself included) are deplorably bad at manufacturing and incepting impressions of themselves. Even a lot of politicians aren’t very good at it, since voters instinctively recoil from the smarminess that tends to exude from their well-groomed coats like musk from a rutting deer.

Who?  Me?  Yeah, those are fangs in my mouth.  So?

And indeed, this is a good eudaemonist would expect. For if virtue is what makes you happy, and what makes you happy is virtue, then it stands to reasons that the pursuit of anything but virtue—even the appearance of virtue—will fail to satisfy.

“But, but, but!” you say. “Doesn’t Aristotle say that a good reputation is part of what it is to be happy? Didn’t you just admit its importance above? After all, if your reputation stinks, and you can’t hold a job, and everyone thinks of your family as Those Joneses and considers the Church that you hold dear to be a bastion of immoral hypocrites—you can’t really be happy, can you? And anyway the whole point of the eudaimonic theory of virtue, as opposed to the nasty Kantian one, is that it’s OK to pursue happiness instead of just doing your stinking duty.”

Eeeeeyes … and no. Or, to put it as Aristotle himself would have put it … In a way, yes; and in a way, no.

Music tomorrow and a conclusion on Friday!


I know, I know, you’re so disappointed …

When Virtue Pays I

A week or two ago I wrote a piece for the Catholic woman’s blog Altcatholicah.  I had been supposed to write something for Altcatholicah for a while, but I was running short on time and inspiration both … until I saw a certain exchange in the comment box of a previous piece on Altcatholicah.

Cross Over the Line

Once upon a time yours truly was a heretic. If that word conjures up images of stakes and spiked iron chairs and empire-chinned prelates of dubious heart and Pricean voice, you can stop reading now. I am not the reincarnation of a Spanish dissenter. Nor am I that only slightly less interesting thing, a convert from Protestantism. No, I came by my heresy honestly, being baptized a Catholic and having every intention of dying one.

It was my theology class that caused the trouble. Theology classes, unlike the rote memorization of the Baltimore catechism, inevitably encourage speculation even when they are not explicitly designed (as this particular theology class was) to encourage it. I will not say that our teachers intended for we students to be heretics, but they certainly intended for us to know how likely we were to go off-key without twenty centuries of Authority for a backup chorus.

In that class we read the Bible which, as every disciple of Richard Dawkins knows, is chock-full of perplexities and outright contradictions, and regulated by an ethos of such overwhelming cruelty, lewdness, and grotesquerie that Mark Twain, the noble soul, suggested it be banned from the public schools. We read the Bible, and—not our hearts; we were too far gone for that—but our minds were troubled. Did God really mean Jeptha to sacrifice his daughter? Why did Miriam become a leper, precisely? What was so awful abut Esau? Did Judith lie to Holofernes? —and so on.


We’re pretty sure this part of Judith’s behavior was justified.  
The lying?  Not so much.

Things got a little better in the New Testament, but only a little. One of my classmates and I fell into an intense debate over Our Lord’s prayer in the garden of Olives. Father, if it is possible, let this chalice pass from me; but not my will, but Thine be done. Of course, Jesus is God; of course, he is God and man; at the same time, he is only one person, not two, but two natures, not one. So far so good. The problem arises when one squints a little too hard at the words “not my will, but Thine be done.” On the surface, it appears that there are two wills there—God’s and Jesus’; and if Jesus also is God, then that seem to imply that he was two wills. But this to me smacked of heresy. Two wills means two persons, no?

My classmate violently disagreed. Two wills meant two natures, not two persons (he said); and the text clearly stated that Christ had two wills; and I was a heretic (he said) for suggesting anything so wishy-washy as “figurativeness”.

The class was inconclusive. (Our professor, chuckling a silent, wicked chuckle behind his glittering spectacles, refused to adjudicate the dispute.) But after class my opponent, who was perhaps a wee bit chagrined at not having persuaded me in class, dragged me to the library and insisted on reading to me from the Summa Theologiae, wherein St. Thomas clearly states (evidencing the very biblical text under dispute) that Christ has two wills, and lists all sort of disreputable people who didn’t, including certain monophysite heretics. (Ouch. I think my fondness for referencing the Summa dates from that event.)

Of course, you will all be happy to know that I did not remain in error long. No sooner was my heresy persuasively and authoritatively explicated to me (I’m sorry, mon frere, but with all due respect, you were neither so persuasive nor so authoritative as St. Thomas!), then I recanted, and thus escaped what would no doubt have been a brilliant career in higher academia, where my own unique idea of the nature of the Man Known As Jesus would have probably earned me tidy little royalties, if I’d had the sense to write about it.

So it was that, having been a heretic myself once—albeit only a modest and material one—I read with some sympathy of Sister MargaretFarley’s woes.


 I couldn’t find a sufficiently complimentary picture of Sr. Margaret, 
and I didn’t want you all to think I was gratuitously making fun of her, 
so here’s Karen Carpenter instead.

I too know what it is to be convinced of my position, and to be argued against by hordes of self-satisfied males. (Well, alright, there was only one self-satisfied male in the aforementioned case, and he had reason to be self-satisfied! I mean, it wasn’t often that they caught me in the wrong …) But unlike Sr. Margaret, I am not quite so convinced of my own brilliance that I am willing to go up against the Saints and Doctors and indeed the Church itself. And therein lies the key difference between her and me.

Sr. Margaret and I are both heretics. I say that still with confidence, because by the end of my four years of theology I had become pretty thoroughly convinced that most Catholics are heretics one way or another, frequently without realizing it. The truth is a complex thing (well, perfectly Simple, if you like, but complex for our minds to grasp); and it is very hard for even the most brilliant and learned and holy of people to get things right all the time. That is why any good Catholic who’s done a bit of writing generally leaves something at the end of his tomes saying, “BTW, Pope So-and-So, feel free to junk this if it turns out that I’m wrong.” That way, while the good Catholic may be wrong on the matter—i.e., he may be a material heretic—his heresy does not take on the rebellious nature of formal heresy. Formal heresy (think “formal” as in “official, recognized, explicit, stated”) is when the person holding the heretical views is aware that his opinions run contrary to Church teaching, and continues to hold them regardless.

That would be Sr. Margaret’s problem. Sr. Margaret is a formal heretic. It puzzles me a little that some people seemto be unwilling to say this. I understand that she is a very kind person; I understand that she is a very fine scholar and very intelligent; I understand that she hasn’t been as aggressively anti-authority as, say Hans Kung. But the lady is wrong. She’s not simply making prudential judgments, applying Church teaching to the 21st century world. She’s not simply holding positions that are eccentric. She’s not simply taking what looks to be the losing side of a question where the Church has yet to define its doctrine. The lady is a heretic: she disagrees with the Church. The lady is a formal heretic: she knows that she disagrees.

“Loyal dissent” is a lovely-sounding phrase. It conjures up images of nobility and independence that are dear to the sentimental American heart. The loyal dissenter exists for the purpose of purifying the greater body, and saving his cause from itself; and in a fallible, human institution, such pure-minded people are invaluable. But one cannot loyally dissent from an institution that considers itself to be divine and infallible. Either one laughs the claims of infallibility to scorn (disloyalty!) or one submits oneself to the infallible judgment. There is no middle way.

A doctrine is not like a strategy debated in the Alamo. A doctrine is like the line in the sand drawn after the strategic decision has been made. If we want to fight with the Church, we’re going to have to step over the line. We’re going to have to step out of our little circle we’ve drawn, the circle that defines what “seems right” to us, and into the Truth outside.

Or, of course, we can stay in our comfortable, self-constructed circle, confident in the fact that our conscience tells us to. We can dissent. But I’m blamed if I can see anything in the least bit loyal in that.




Sackcloth and Ashes

So we can put the champagne back in the cupboards.  The Individual Mandate is a tax, says Chief Justice John Roberts (though Justice Kennedy apparently disagrees).

I feel a bit like Alice in Wonderland.  That new kind of Wonderland, in the movie version I wouldn’t watch if you paid me to, with The Depp in fright makeup.

Kennedy, reading the minority dissent: “In our view, the entire Act before us is invalid in its entirety.”

And I was so looking forward to turning the second week of Fortnight for Freedom into one big Catholic party!

The bad news is, we’re stuck with the HHS interpretation of the requirements of the Individual Mandate.  In plain English, all employers have to pay for health care that covers cotnraceptives, sterilizations, and abortion-providing drugs.  That includes EWTN and Belmont Abbey.  That would include Jesus and Mother Theresa, if they were still in business.  (Well, you know what I mean.  Jesus is still in business—they tell me He has a vicar in Rome, or something like that.  I don’t think the local American branches of the vicar’s organization are exempt either.)

The good news is …

There is good news, really there is.  The good news is that the whole debate over Religious Liberty, which would have become moot if the Individual Mandate had been struck down, will continue, probably for quite some time.

Why is this good?

Because as a country we’ve started to forget religion.  Now that religious consciences are being pushed into a hard place, we as a country will no longer be able to forget it.  We’ll have to make a choice.  Either Catholicism and other religions of that traditional, “restrictive” ilk are worthy of respect, or they are not.  Either individuals are Catholic (or religious) or they are not.  Either you’re ready to go to (or go get) the lions, or you’re not.

In a way, this ruling is a gift.

My old college professor used to say (probably still does—is probably saying it today, louder than ever!): “You kids are lucky.  You get to fight!”

He was in the army during WWII where, to his (I suspect) everlasting regret, he never got to see action.

Well, here’s our chance to see action, my friends.  You can begin with this.  Or with this.  Or even with this.  Or go start your own protest!

Read the SCOTUSblog on the opinion here.

And in the meantime, just a reminder of whose side we’re on …


Immenso Jeovha,         Mighty Jehova,
Chi non ti sente?             Who does not know you?
Chi non è polvere         Who is not dust
Innanzi a te?                     Before you?
Tu spandi un’iride?…   You fling out a rainbow—
Tutto è ridente.                All is laughter.
Tu vibri il fulmine?…    You shake the lightning—
L’uom più non è.          Man is no longer.

The excerpt is from Verdi’s Nabucco (post here). For you trivia-lovers, here’s Wikipedia on this particular chorus:

The best-known number from the opera is the “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves,” Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate / “Fly, thought, on golden wings,” a chorus which is regularly given an encore when performed today. …
Music historians have long perpetuated a powerful myth about the famous Va, pensiero chorus sung in the third act by the Hebrew slaves. Scholars have long believed the audience, responding with nationalistic fervor to the slaves’ powerful hymn of longing for their homeland, demanded an encore of the piece. As encores were expressly forbidden by the government at the time, such a gesture would have been extremely significant. However, recent scholarship puts this and the corresponding myth of Va, pensiero as the national anthem of the Risorgimento to rest. Although the audience did indeed demand an encore, it was not for “Va, pensiero” but rather for the hymn “Immenso Jehova,” sung by the Hebrew slaves to thank God for saving His people. In light of these new revelations, Verdi’s position as the musical figurehead of the Risorgimento has been correspondingly downplayed. At Verdi’s funeral, the crowds in the streets spontaneously broke into “Va, pensiero”.

“To thank God for saving His people.”  I like how the nameless Wikiwriter actually capitalized the “He” there.  It was once considered grammatically correct to do so; but now in most parts that tradition of capitalization has gone the way of the Oxford comma, so it’s nice to see it pop up accidentally.   Ah, but ’tis the little things that help to restore one’s faith in humanity …

… and equally, by little things that God saves His people.

Pray, mon freres.  Let us pray.

“People Will Talk”

Admittedly, this is not an explicitely Catholic movie … but … just read the review to the end.

This name “Mankiewicz” was familiar.  I didn’t know what he had directed, but I did know I had heard of him before—a good sign, that.  The back of the VHS case assured us that we were about to see some kind of chipper romantic comedy.  The reviews around the web proclaimed it to be tiresome, anti-McCarthyite, liberal propaganda.  IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes gave it about a 7/10.

Well, IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes were about right (though I’d say more of an 8/10 myself).  The reviewers who noted the anti-McCarthyism were correct, the way a couple of mycologists are when they discover a rare species of Pleurotus and fail to appreciate the forest full of flora and fauna that surrounds the growth.  The back of the VHS case was just plain stupid, like a biography of Napoleon that focuses on his fashion sense.


And my toupee is just too excellent too …

Let’s start by saying that People Will Talk doesn’t follow rules.  Cary Grant is the star, but he’s not playing a Cary Grant type—neither romantic, nor comic, nor suspenseful, but human, and therefore a little bit of all of those things, as most human beings are.  In fact, despite the eccentricities of his character here, he seems strangely normal, in a way that, say, John Robbie, Dudley, Walter Eckland, and even the splendid C.K. Dexter Haven do not.  For a gynecologist named Noah Praetorius, who comes complete with a mysterious past as a reputed miracle-worker and a present-day familiar nicknamed The Bat, that’s saying a lot.

The movie opens to music brimming with Beethovian humanism.  Count one for Mankiewizc.  (OK, so maybe the scholars of communism are partly correct, and we’re dealing with “liberalism” in a broad sense here.)  We are treated to a brief, slightly pretentious couple of paragraphs about What Great Truths This Movie Will Be About.  Count one against Mankiewizc.  The setting is an archway looking over the quad of some vaguely ivied academic institution. Word and music fade, and we find ourselves in one of the said institution’s halls.  A pinched, irritable-looking woman is sitting outside a door waiting.  Hold up—

It’s Margaret Hamilton!  Yes, that Margaret Hamilton, Miss Gulch, aka the Wicked Witch of the West.  (As a side note, in real life and prior to her movie career, Hamilton was, of all things, a school teacher; in fact, she taught kindergarten.  She is said also to have “loved and doted upon children all her life,” and to have adored small animals.  I offer Margaret Hamilton as Exhibit A  in my You-Don’t-Have-to-Be-It-to-Play-It Parade.)

Although Hamilton will appear only in this one opening scene, she effectively steals it from … The man walking down the corridor, Hume Cronyn, or for the purposes of PWT, Dr. Elwell.  Dr. Elwell and Hamilton’s character, Sarah Picket, exchange words.

Picket: They said for me to come right away.
Elwell: Who said?
Picket: The agency.
Elwell: The agency?  What agency?  [Light dawns.]  Oh, it’s the detective agency, Sergeant Cooper …  [Unlocks his office door, and speaks louder and more pleasantly.]  Yes! come in, come in.
Picket: If I come in, does the door get closed?
Elwell: Naturally …
Picket: Then I don’t come in.
Elwell: Why not?
Picket: You know why not; you’re old enough.
Elwell [beginning to sound indignant again]: My dear Mrs. Picket—!
Picket: Miss Picket.  And don’t butter me up.
Elwell: I have conducted my affairs behind closed doors for twenty years.
Picket: Not with me.
Elwell [sizing her determination up with a sigh]: You overestimate both of us.  Have it your way.

He enters, she follows, we snicker, and the door stays open—for now.  It seems that Elwell is collecting information on a colleague of his, a certain Dr. Noah Praetorius, whom Miss Picket once kept house for.  Elwell clearly suspects Praetorius of some kind of misconduct, and Sarah Picket is ready enough to oblige with spicy gossip concerning the man who “healed people.”

Ooh, look!  Skull …

But when Elwell brings up Praetorius’ friend Shunderson …  Sarah Picket gets up and closes the door.  Apparently she’d rather take a chance with Elwell than risk said Shunderson overhearing her.  My my …

The next scene gives us Dr. Elwell’s anatomy class.  Elwell is late, due to his conference with The Pickett; and Dr. Praetorius offers the waiting students an impromptu lecture on the importance of Humanity in Medicine.  In the course of making his points, Praetorius (partially) exposes the cadaver of the pretty young girl (partially, friends—that’s what the Hayes Code was for!) who is about to be anatomized, causing one of the more sensitive female students to faint.  Praetorius dismisses the student with some advice and a piece of candy.  All the while, the large silent figure of Shunderson (Finlay Currie) is hovering by his elbow.

Oooooh, look!  Skeleton …

Eventually Dr. Elwell shows up, apologizing for his lateness with the excuse of a “malignant tumor” that he wanted to see.  Praetorius is amused.  “Professor Elwell, you are the only person I know who can say ‘malignant’ like other people say ‘bingo’.”

We follow Praetorius and the still-silent Shunderson to Praetorius’ private gynecology clinic.  Praetorius tells a by-the-book nurse to humor a patient who wants to take her gall bladder home with her; he comforts an old dying woman with a story of how he had a near-death experience as a child.  He clearly has the right touch with his patients.

Or … does he?  Enter “Mrs. Higgins,” the student who fainted in anatomy class.  She has come in for some tests, hoping to ascertain that her fainting spells are nothing serious.  Nothing serious at all! —Dr. Praetorius tells her, looking the test results over.  She’s pregnant!

And wears fifties lipstick.  OK, OK, I’m done being irreverent …

This is not what “Mrs. Higgins”—or rather, Deborah—wanted to hear.  Because she’s not married.  And her soldier boyfriend has just been killed in Korea.  And anyway, she hadn’t even known him that long, “not even long enough to be sure.”  She is a bundle of anger and fear; and he, with all his attempts at soothing advice is, in her words, “a pompous know-it-all.”  In the end he puts it to her bluntly.

Praetorius: Is it the baby you’re afraid of?
Deborah: In a way …
Praetorius: Don’t you want it?
Deborah: Of course I do, but I can’t have it; I just can’t have it!

She is afraid to tell her father about her pregnancy.  Praetorius offers to break the news to her father for her, but she turns him down and walks out of the clinic.  Praetorius, preparing to leave the clinic himself for the evening, complains to the still-silent Shunderson.

Praetorius: Sometimes, Shunderson, it seems to me that half the women who come in here want babies they can’t have, and the other half—
Nurse (picking up the topic since clearly, Shunderson never answers question anyway!): She’s old enough to know what she’s doing, and to take what’s coming to her.
Praetorius: I never want to hear you say anything as idiotic and heartless as that again! 
Nurse: But doctor, I—
Praetorius: For one thing you’re a nurse.  For another you’re a woman.  I’m ashamed of both of you!

Before the nurse can reply, there’s a shot outside.  Yes, it’s Deborah; and she’s attempted suicide.

The wound isn’t serious (remember? we’re in a comedy, yes?), and so they wheel her into surgery and repair the damage.  After the nurse has left, Shunderson and Praetorius are left with the still-unconscious Deborah.  And … mirabile dictu! … Shunderson speaks.  “[S]he’ll try it again.  She’s still all alone.  And there’s still nobody to help her.”

Dark words … but we’re in a comedy, yes?  So the next scene gives us some comic relief.  Praetorius is apparently, among his other talents, an amateur conductor, and he is rehearsing a concert with the premeds, who obviously adore him.  Praetorius engages in a little repartee with one of his fellow professors, Professor Barker (the inimitable Walter Slezak), who is also playing in the orchestra.

Praetorius: … and as for the gentleman on the third bull fiddle.  Professor Barker! is there any reason why you who live so intimately with millions of neutrons and know them all by name cannot maintain a simple beat on a bull fiddle?
Barker: Are you referring to me?
Praetorius: I did not mean to impugn your academic standing, of course …
Barker: My dear Dr. Praetorius.  I would willingly entrust the life of my sister to your skill as a gynecologist, but I would not let you conduct my three-year-old nephew to the bathroom.

After the students have scattered, Professor Barker tries to warn Praetorius (“Noah”) about Elwell.

Barker: I want you to know that I am your good and devoted friend.
Praetorius: I’ve known that for some time.  And I am yours.
Barker: Therefore I have the right to point out to you that there are occasions when you behave like a cephalic idiot!
Praetorius: Also granted.  Any particular occasion?
Barker: Out of a universe of time and space, only you could pick Rodney Elwell’s anatomy class!

Barker is not concerned about Praetorius’ mysterious past—that is, he doesn’t care to know about it himself—but he is afraid that Elwell might be able to dig up something unpleasant on his friend—something that might lead to the University investigating Praetorius …

Praetorius brushes off Barker’s concerns, and goes to check up on Deborah.  And … tells her that his clinic made a mistake.  He read her the wrong test results, the test results of another woman.  She’s not really pregnant.  Which is a lie, and probably some kind of misconduct or malpractice as well, but solves the problem of preventing a second suicide attempt.  Temporarily, anyway.

Oddly enough, Deborah’s not too much happier than she was before.  “I had to go and tell you all about myself, and about what I did, and now it turns out I didn’t really have to!”  It seems that she is beginning to develop feelings for the noble Dr. Praetorius … which under the circs. is “not surprising, really”!

Praetorius says goodnight to Deborah in a chivalrously staid fashion and goes off to have a bachelor dinner with Barker.  Barker wants to talk about Deborah, but Praetorius is reluctant to dwell on the topic.  Partway through their meal they receive a call from the clinic: Deborah has disappeared.

Barker [deadpan, holding his beer stein]: Who flew the coop?  The young lady we were discussing?
Praetorius: Yeah.
Barker [still deadpan, glancing at beer stein]: Why would she run away?
Praetorius [starting to pace]: I don’t know.  But I’ve got to find her.
Barker [slightest chuckle]: I should think so!  It seems you’ve got some important information about her that she hasn’t got.  [Drinks.  Praetorius glares at him.]

Alright, I’m done now.  You’re about a third of the way through the movie.  Go watch it!  It’s like … a prolife movie before being prolife was an issue.  Refreshing.  And for those of you who are Chesterton fans, there’s a scene towards the end that is so exquisitely reminiscent of the trial of Innocent Smith that … well, OK.  The whole movie has something Chestertonian about it.  Just go watch the blame thing!

(That’s the first clip from YouTube.  The rest is there; you can also find the movie on Amazon, Netflicks … no excuses, mon freres!) 

Wumpick and the Trough

My Dear Wumpick,

So, your patient is going through one of those troughs that the man from Belfast described in his scurrilous, indecent, and, I need hardly add, inaccurate scrawl concerning the tactics we employ for the cause of Our Father Below? I hope she does not know about the troughs, Wumpick? that she has not read that book? Or at least, if she had read it (I seem to recall your predecessor mentioning it in his dossier) I hope that it was some time ago. Of course, she has heard of the book; but you will have taken care to associate it in her mind with what the humans call “interpersonal relations,” and managed to keep the more spiritual chapters out of, or at any rate, in the back of, her head. This is all well and good, especially if you can keep helping her see the faults of the fictitious patient, his fiancé, his mother, as well as the faults of the real, living people around her, but not those in herself. See that she applies the book’s lessons very well, very personally; and she will—apply them, well, personally—to every person but herself! See that it never enters her mind to do that.

And see also that it never enters her mind to consider (for example) the chapters on prayer, or on humility. I do not know whether the Enemy would altogether approve of everything said in them; but He can afford to be greedy when we cannot. He can afford to demand perfect love and perfect truth because He can supply the means to both; we cannot afford to demand perfect sin, for there is no such thing—though not, of course, for the reasons the Fat Doctor claimed. One can always sink deeper into the arms of Our Father Below. His is a genuine depth, a genuine infinity … But, as I was saying: the things that man from Belfast writes on prayer may not always be accurate, but they have been damaging to us, and would be especially damaging to our case with the patient at this time. Keep those parts of the book out of her mind; if they do crop up anyhow (the Enemy can always find a way when He wants it), be sure to deflect her to the parts of the book which we have rendered relatively harmless by dint of her imagination. As the man says somewhere in his libelous scribbles, most of our best work is done not by putting things into their heads but by keeping things out.

As for the trough itself—there are a number of ways we can use it. The best and simplest is the old standby of getting the patient to give up prayer, and acts of mortification and virtue, altogether. You might think this would be easy—human beings are intensely lazy in spiritual matters—but in point of fact, with a patient like yours it can be a difficult proposition. She has had the habit of doing those things for so long that even now, when they have ceased to offer her any real consolation or intellectual lift, she feels guilt when she omits any one of them. Guilt, my dear Wumpick! Guilt in a trough! It is almost unthinkable; the very nature of the trough, the definition of it provides that it involves a drought of emotions; but such is the slavery of these human animals to habit, that even under such dry conditions habit will take its toll. (I loath, with an eternal loathing the anonymous spiritual master who first discovered this truth. I hope he turned Origen and died a heretic. I hope he did.)

So you can try, Wumpick, to chip away at the patient’s good habits, but I doubt very seriously whether you will have much luck. The better course, just as easy and more likely to succeed in the present case, is to fill her mind with doubts about the trough itself.

For example, you have no doubt considered the classic temptations to despair. I doubt whether one of the more extreme forms will do us good here—though one never knows! I have seen strange things done between one and two in the morning on a sleepless night. Still, simply introducing right out the notion that the enemy has abandoned her is not likely to carry much weight with the patient who has been a Christian this long.

There is, however, a more subtle form that has been wildly effective in a great many sensitive and religious souls. It is particularly funny when you can get men to believe it—men who are not really suffering are such aggrieved sufferers!—but it is easier to get a woman to believe, because it requires a certain amount of spiritual or at least psychological passivity.

The method is this. Without using the language of the Christian tradition, you are to suggest to the patient that the Enemy intends for her to suffer—not as a punishment (though that would be amusing too; see method 1: despair above) but as a gift. Since your patient, like most of the unsanctified humans, has a genuine horror of suffering, the results of this suggestion can be most entertaining.

For one thing, it will allow the patient to build up a reservoir of resentment against the Enemy. Never mind the fact that she (theoretically) promised Him her loyalty under any and all circumstances; never mind that she has insisted (to herself—but of course the Enemy was listening; He always is) that she would be prepared to suffer martyrdom for the Cause of the True Faith, or some such nonsense: such grand gestures mean nothing when a patient comes face-to-face with the drudgery of dry unmitigated spiritual thirst that is the Trough. Let her suppose that the Enemy has accepted her offer, her resignation to His will, and is imposing this period gratuitously, without connection to her spiritual well-being or the natural laws of the human spirit. Let her suppose, also, that this period is indefinite in length—that it will continue until she does something to end it—until she “cries uncle” as they say, or breaks the bargain with the Enemy by some perfidious act of betrayal. Any kind of sin will do there, Wumpick … any sin, as long as it is a grave one. And in the trough state, such a sin would have the advantage of being the product of pure spite on the patient’s part, without owing a fig to her human weakness! But perhaps that is asking a bit much of our patient at the present time, expecting her to do something? especially something big? Then you must just keep up the suggestion that this trough is an imposition from on high, a spiritual discipline with no other purpose than to let her suffer for suffering’s sake. Keep on that, and use the patient’s impatience and resentment. With any luck—or rather, with good solid work on your part—her resentment towards the Enemy will be so great that by the time when the trough would (naturally or supernaturally) end, she will be in no condition to notice that she is coming out of it, because she will have entered into a newer, and a deeper, and a more dangerous one, of her own making and Our Father’s design.

Your affectionate uncle,


Bad People

I so badly wanted for this to be a good movie.

I love fantasy.  I’m a fantasy fan who never recovered from the fact that there are only seven Narnia books and only one Lord of the Rings.  I tried to cope by reading alternately from Lloyd Alexander, Philip Pullman, and biographies of various Inklings.  I was like a smoker on Nicoret—unhappy, unhealthy, and suffering all the symptoms of withdrawal while simultaneously wallowing in the knowledge that my remedy was only feeding my addiction.  It was thus, at the tender age of twelve or thirteen, I became a fiction writer.

But that wasn’t what I meant write about.  I meant to write about Snow White and the Huntsman, or, more precisely, about one line in Steven Gredanus’ review of the movie, or, even more precisely, about my first brother’s comment on that line.  While praising the movie in parts, Mr. Greydanus has this to say (coming about two-fifths into his essay—but it could just as well have been his conclusion):

Typically Hollywood fails to make it a story of iconic good against iconic evil because they don’t know how to portray iconic good.  I have said this time after time.

My brother read that, and said this:

Typically Hollywood fails to make it a story of iconic good against iconic evil because they don’t know how to portray iconic good.  I have said this time after time.

And really, my brother has said that time after time.  We’ve both said that.  That was my (our) complaint about Jackson’s LOTR.  Saruman?  Yes.  Evil orcs?  Yes.  Boromir?  Yes! yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.  Aragorn, Faramir, Galadriel …

What?  Did Jackson even read Tolkien?  One wonders …

But Jackson did read the books, and so did others who worked on the project.  Sanders and co. who produced Huntsman would have known the Grimm tale even without reading it—and in any case, fairy tales by their very nature lack the in-depth character drawing needed for the big screen.  Any writer who goes from fairy tale to film will have to extrapolate.  But granting the need for development, why, in Huntsman as in so many other films, are the screenwriters, directors, actors, et al. so good at doing villainy and so bad at doing virtue?

It wasn’t always so.  Among the movies I’ve seen at home in the past month: El Cid (Charlton Heston, directed by Anthony Mann, 1961), The Diary of a Country Priest (Claude Laydu, directed by Robert Bresson, 1951), and People Will Talk (Cary Grant, directed by Joseph Mankiewizc, 1951).  Three very different movies: a justly famous if occasionally ponderous epic, a deeply moving study of quiet heroic virtue that Scorese admits to learning from (!), and a largely forgotten black-and-white dramedy of truly Chestertonian proportions and heart.  Each of these movies has a different kind of hero.  Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar: Superman on horseback, Moses with a sword.  The Priest of Ambricourt: a modern-day Christ figure, a suffering servant.  Dr. Noah Praetorius: impulsive, charming, and as absurdly generous as a man in a Miles Connolly novel.

Why do I bring this up?  Because, frankly, there is an easy answer to the question, “Why does Hollywood fail at portraying iconic goodness?” that is obvious, but also wrong.  The easy, obvious, but wrong answer is that the people in Hollywood are bad people.

Of course they’re bad people!

They were always bad people.  Don’t kid yourselves.  The “good movie stars” are the ones like Jimmy Stewart (playboy before marriage, but settled down afterward), Ronald Reagan (twice married), Deanna Durbin (left Hollywood at the age of 29, thus enabling her third and final marriage to last forty-eight years till the death of her spouse), Loretta Young (who had a single affair with Clark Gable, but other than that kept to the straight and narrow), or Robert Mitchum and Gary Cooper (who were each married only once, but do not appear to have been models of responsibility).  Among the “bad movie stars” Cary Grant is famous, along with Rex Harrison, Christopher Plummer, Doris Day, and a host of others whom you really just don’t want to know about.  Good heavens, even Jennifer Jones (of The Song of Bernadette) went on to be married three times.

Caveat spector: Not really a saint.

But they could still act.  They weren’t good people, but they could do good people on screen.  And they thought it worth their while to do good people now and then.  As bad as they were, they could sense goodness when they bumped up against it; and as bad as Hollywood was, there was still enough  goodness sloshing around in the culture at large that they couldn’t help bumping up against it now and then.

In today’s world, it’s not just that there are bad people in Hollywood: there are bad people everywhere.  More seriously, it’s not just that our culture doesn’t know goodness: our culture actively mistrusts goodness.  Our culture does not believe in goodness.  (Remember Hitchens’ slam of Mother Theresa?)  And when one no longer knows, trusts, and believes in a thing, one stops putting it into one’s art, stories, and songs; yes—one even stops putting it into one’s fantasy and fairy tales.


Villainy, Inc.

Color me naive, but I cannot understand the furor over the USCCB’s continued refusal to place the rubber stamp of their approval on free contraception for all.  The issue has been in the news for months now, ever since the HHS first announced that universal health insurance meant universal coverage of contraception.  As the conservative blogosphere lights up with virtual air-fives at the bishops finally, finally doing something that makes them unpopular, the secular press has, for the most part, attacked the bishops with a steady stream of inflammatory rhetoric, flawed studies, dishonest reporting, and utter disregard for the ordinary laws of logic.  The latest is another New York Times editorial, characterizing the religious freedom lawsuit as a “dramatic stunt, full of indignation but built on air.”

There’s no reason to waste time dissecting the editorial’s arguments; there is nothing new there, nothing that has not been refuted a dozen times already.  The “what” questions are already answered; it’s just a matter of Catholics continuing to get the word out.  My question is a “why” question, the same one that’s been nagging me since the beginning of this debate.

Why are they doing this to us?

 Miss Hepburn cannot understand your persistent rudeness.

Is it naive to ask that?  As there really a simple, convincing answer?  If so, I have yet to hear it.

Why is it so important to them that we pay for their pills?  Why would they not be content to let us live and let live, to treat us as the Amish of All Things Reproductive?

It was good enough for Jacob / It’s good enough for me!

Oh yes, those weird religious people who don’t use electricity …  Oh yes, those weird religious people who don’t use contraception …  It’s not as if they need us to pay for the stuff, any more than we need the Amish to subsidize our consumption of electricity.  Sandra Fluke made that argument, and I’m sure they’re a few liberals who believe her; but these folks cannot but be in the minority.  After all, most of them are contracepting themselves: they buy the stuff: they cannot help but know how much (or rather, how little) it costs.

So why are they doing this to us?  Do they hate us for policing our own pleasures?  Do they despise us for what they perceive as our hypocrisy (especially in light of the well-publicized scandal of abuse coverups)?

These may be the reasons for some; but I refuse to believe, even of my enemies, that emotions explain everything.  There must be some kind of rational thought process going on there, behind all the anger.

Must be.

It can’t be that they think contraception is no big deal to us—if some of them thought so once, they’ve been disabused of the notion by now.  Nor can it be that they think contraception should be no big deal, and are angry that we make such a fuss over it—see the point about the Amish above.

There’s only one reason for anyone to go after an organization that isn’t really harming anyone, and that would like nothing better than to be left in peace with a pint of Guinness in an air-conditioned chancery.  You go after such an organization because you think they’re evil.

And you must admit, we can look kinda intimidating.

No, really.  They think we’re the bad guys.  They truly believe every word they’ve read about the Middle Ages.  They’ve seen all the old Hollywood movies that trade on the mysterious magnetism of the Church, everything from Going My Way to The Ten Commandments to On the Waterfront.  They’ve swallowed the sentiments of Dan Brown and Philip Pullman.  And they are generally scared that we Catholics might, by the arcane powers we possess, somehow reproduce *ahem* another Dark Ages (which were really the product of pagan barbarism, but never mind that).

They’re scared of us.  Not of what we are, but of what (they think) we’ve been and what (they fear) we might become again.  Not of what we’re doing, but of what we might do.  We are the Iran of religions.  We are Frank Miller.  Captain Bligh.  Darth Vader.  Lex Luther.  Chaos.

 Well, maybe not Chaos.

And this after our repeated failures to take over the world!  And all we’ve done to brand ourselves as utter wimps!  Really, the Holy Spirit has a lot of explaining to do.

And we’re not leaving till it’s done.

The other thing to understand is, they haven’t got our confidence.  We know we’re going to win—if not this battle, still the war; if not the little war, the Great War.  So some of our big people flake, even all of our big people; so some of us are ridiculed, or go to jail, or die; we know we have a Father in Heaven, and an Advocate before him who “will come again to judge the living and the dead.”  Game over already.  We win.

In case you weren’t sure what “win” meant … 

The secularists haven’t got that.  Not even Alain de Botton could figure out a way to get them that.  Have you ever thought how scary the world would be without having that?  (“A tale told by an idiot … signifying: nothing.”)  Or how weird and crazy and frightening people who do have That would seem to those who don’t?

It almost makes me feel sorry for the folks at the New York Times.