Sunday, July 31, 2022

Spiritual Quote of the Day (St. John Chrysostom, on Greed, an ‘Unrestrainable Frenzy’)

“Now tell me why is wealth an object of ambition?.... To the majority of those who are afflicted with this grievous malady it seems to be more precious than health and life, and public reputation, and good opinion, and country, and household, and friends, and kindred and everything else….Nor is there any one to quench this fire: but all people are engaged in stirring it up, both those who have been already caught by it, and those who have not yet been caught, in order that they may be captured. And you may see everyone, husband and wife, household slave, and freeman, rich and poor, each according to his ability carrying loads which supply much fuel to this fire by day and night: loads not of wood or faggots (for the fire is not of that kind), but loads of souls and bodies, of unrighteousness and iniquity. For such is the material of which a fire of this kind is wont to be kindled. For those who have riches place no limit anywhere to this monstrous passion, even if they compass the whole world: and the poor press on to get in advance of them, and a kind of incurable craze, and unrestrainable frenzy and irremediable disease possesses the souls of all. And this affection has conquered every other kind and thrust it away, expelling it from the soul.”—Father of the Eastern Church and Bishop of Constantinople St. John Chrysostom (345-407), “No One Can Harm the Man Who Does Not Harm Himself,” translated by W.R.W. Stephens, from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 9, edited by Philip Schaff (1889).

I wish that a picture of the eloquent preacher who said these words, St. John Chrysostom (the surname means “golden-mouthed”), would interest people enough to read these words. But I’m afraid that an illustration of a figure from nearly two millennia ago is not someone to capture the attention of a 21st century reader.

So, I thought I would use an image likely to be more familiar to the common reader—or, at least, film fans, since mass entertainment is the unlikely modern equivalent of the ancient parable.

So, in case you are wondering: yes, that is director John Huston, in a role he took on increasingly on in the last two decades of his long Hollywood career—actor—facing Jack Nicholson (back to the camera, in shadow), in the great 1974 neo-noir classic, Chinatown.

Huston’s character, a jovial-seeming industrialist called Noah Cross, is one of the great villains of movie history. The name itself is ironic: read one way, it suggests an Old Testament patriarch, along with New Testament redemptive qualities.

But as Nicholson’s private eye, Jake Gittes, discovers, this figure is behind the massive diversion of water from farms to Los Angeles. And the “Cross” surname might as well be short for “double-cross,” for few evils are beyond this magnate’s thirst for money, including municipal corruption, murder and child molestation.

In one of the most striking exchanges in Robert Towne’s Oscar-winning screenplay, Gittes probes for the motive behind all this, asking Cross, “How much are you worth?”

Cross: “I have no idea. How much do you want?”

Gittes: “I just wanna know what you're worth. More than 10 million?”

Cross: “Oh my, yes!”

Gittes: “Why are you doing it? How much better can you eat? What could you buy that you can't already afford?”

Cross: “The future, Mr. Gittes! The future.”

Beware of a pursuit of wealth so frenzied that it mortgages the future of society, the film tells us. It does indeed become what Chrysostom cautioned of: “a kind of incurable craze and unrestrainable frenzy and irremediable disease [that] possesses the souls of all.” 

Or, as Gittes warned in Chinatown's climax, about the poisonous influence of Cross: "He's rich! Do you understand? He thinks he can get away with anything."

Saturday, July 30, 2022

Song Lyric of the Day (Joni Mitchell, on ‘These Dark Café Days’)

“All good dreamers pass this way some day
Hidin' behind bottles in dark cafes, dark cafes
Only a dark cocoon before I get my gorgeous wings and fly away
Only a phase, these dark cafe days.” — Singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, “The Last Time I Saw Richard," from her LP Blue (1971)
Like so many other baby boomers, I was astonished to discover that the legendary Joni Mitchell had made a surprise appearance at the 2022 Newport Folk Festival last Sunday. It was even more glorious to think that she had performed nine songs, including one on her guitar—the first time she had done so before a paying audience since her 55th birthday.
On her live 1974 double-LP set, Miles of Aisles, Mitchell expressed her ambivalence about fulfilling fan expectations, telling an audience, “That's one thing that's always the major difference between the performing arts to me, and being a painter. A painter does a painting, and he does a painting — and that's it, you know. He’s had the joy of creating it, and he hangs on a wall, and somebody buys it, somebody buys it again, or maybe nobody buys it, and it sits up in a loft somewhere until he dies. But nobody ever said to Van Gogh, 'Paint A Starry Night again, man!' You know? He painted it, and that was it.”
This past weekend, however, the 78-year-old musician and artist seemed genuinely delighted in revisiting old fan favorites like “Carey,” “Big Yellow Taxi,” “A Case of You,” “Help Me,” “The Circle Game,” and “Both Sides Now.” Collectively, they could be her “songs of experience,” to borrow a phrase from William Blake.
The lyrics I chose for today’s quote represent perhaps the more dominant strain of her youth: songs of flight (“my gorgeous wings”), of the bohemian yearning for musical, artistic and personal freedom.
She would be the first to tell you of the personal price she paid for that quest (discussed in this prior post of mine about “Urge for Going”). But they form as indelible a part of her legacy as her “songs of experience.”
The Newport audience was honoring her stunning contribution to music with their full-throated response. But there were other reasons for their warm welcome back to her.
Chief among those reasons is this: everybody loves a comeback story, and Mitchell had to overcome greater odds than most to make it back onstage. Vanessa Romo’s blog post for Georgia Public Broadcasting relates how, following the singer’s 2015 brain aneurysm, even relearning how to speak and walk was a struggle.
But Mitchell took matters a step further: “Playing an instrument and vocal cord coordination, those sorts of things, are really, super complex fine movements that would take a long time to relearn," Dr. Anthony Wang, a neurosurgeon at Ronald Reagan UCLA Hospital, told Ms. Rono.
Mitchell relearned how to play the guitar by watching past videos of herself to see where she put her fingers. But the rest came through the stubbornness that sometimes drove hit-bent record execs to distraction in her youth, or what her attending surgeon correctly termed her “will and grit."
Over the past several years, baby boomers have grown used to the icons of their youth leaving the stage through physical decline and death.
But for one glorious moment this past weekend, they were able to witness a return of a genius who created words and chords that form part of the collective soundtrack of our lives. It was indeed something to cheer—even sing—about.

(The photo of Ms. Mitchell accompanying this post came from an Asylum Records ad from 1974.)

Friday, July 29, 2022

Quote of the Day (Larry David, on Why He ‘Never Could Have Lived in the Old West’)

“I never could have lived in the Old West. I would have been completely paranoid about someone stealing my horse. No locks. You tie them to a post! How could you go into a saloon and enjoy yourself knowing your horse could get taken any moment? I would be so distracted. Constantly checking to see if he was still there.”— American comedian, writer, actor, director, and television producer Larry David quoted in Maureen Dowd, “Master of His Quarantine,” The New York Times, April 5, 2020

(This image of the creator of Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm—and Broadway’s Fish in the Dark—was taken at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival by David Shankbone.)

Thursday, July 28, 2022

Quote of the Day (T.H. White, As Merlin Warns Arthur About ‘Popular Agitators’ in His Kingdom)

“You have become the king of a domain in which the popular agitators hate each other for racial reasons, while the nobility fight each other for fun, and neither the racial maniac nor the overlord stops to consider the lot of the common soldier, who is the one person that gets hurt.” —English novelist T.H. White (1906-1964), The Once and Future King (1958)

Written like another epic with mythical overtones, The Lord of the Rings, during WWII, The Once and Future King became the basis of the musical Camelot

The image accompanying this post comes from the original 1960 Broadway production, with Richard Burton as reason-guided King Arthur and Roddy McDowall as Mordred, the conniving son who will become a stand-in for the “popular agitators” who put the realm at risk.

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Quote of the Day (Lord Acton, on Institutions’ ‘History of Deception and Illusions’)

“The history of institutions is often a history of deception and illusions; for their virtue depends on the ideas that produce and on the spirit that preserves them; and the form may remain unaltered when the substance has passed away.” —English historian Lord John Acton (John Emerich Edward Dalberg) (1834-1902), “The History of Freedom in Antiquity,” delivered to the members of the Bridgnorth Institute, Feb. 26, 1877

I took the accompanying picture of the Capitol dome in Washington on a visit in 2015, when the seat of American government was being restored. Unfortunately, our nation’s lawmakers forgot to take similar time and care in ensuring that American democracy itself would be safeguarded against rot from within and a clever demagogue from within.

Even before Donald Trump executed his startling rise to power in 2016, Congressional government was experiencing arteriosclerosis. The clubby atmosphere that once prevailed, particularly in the Senate, had devolved into ugly partisan posturing and shouting, leaving the people’s business undone.

But each succeeding day of Trump's Presidency--and even every day he's been out of office since--has led the overwhelming majority of the GOP on Capitol Hill to deferring to him at every turn--a prospect they would have once loathed as an incursion on their rights and privileges as lawmakers.

Josh Hawley’s run away from rioters in the halls of the Capitol on January 6, 2021 has made him a laughingstock in many circles. But the U.S. Senator from Missouri is hardly the only lawmaker who gave material aid and comfort to Donald Trump in his attempted coup: 147 Republicans voted that day not to certify not to certify Joe Biden's election

And, if Hawley is not held accountable by the voters in his state, he will only be remembered as inspiration for thousands of memes over a couple-days period, rather than as a partner in infamy.

Over the last 20 to 30 years, Americans have heard of many public figures being labeled “institutionalists.” Time and again, we have been disappointed, as they have tended to their future political prospects rather than preserving what Acton called “the ideas that produce and…the spirit that preserves them.”

Let us hope that the “substance” the historian looked to hasn’t melted away for good during this ferocious summer on Capitol Hill.

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Quote of the Day (Leo Tolstoy, on Smiles and Beauty)

“It seems to me that what we call beauty in a face lies in the smile: if the smile heightens the charm of the face, the face is a beautiful one; if it does not alter it, the face is ordinary, and if it is spoilt by a smile, it is ugly.” ― Russian novelist Count Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), Childhood, Boyhood, Youth (1856)

I had a really hard time coming up with an image associated with Leo Tolstoy that would epitomize what he was talking about in this quote.

The problem was this: no Tolstoy character, I believe, embodies beauty quite like the title character of Anna Karenina, and especially in the early pages of that novel, which gives a sense of her vivacity with this: “Everything was made bright by her. She was the smile that shed light all around her.”

When she has her fateful meeting with the man who becomes her lover, Count Vronsky, the animation in that smile comes to the fore, even as it is at war with the social and moral restraints that eventually doom her:

“In that brief glance Vronsky had time to notice the restrained animation that played over her face and fluttered between her shining eyes and the barely noticeable smile that curved her red lips. It was as if a surplus of something so overflowed her being that it expressed itself beyond her will, now in the brightness of her glance, now in her smile.”

But I came up blank in my online search for an image that would capture the startling illumination of Anna. In fact, the overwhelming majority of the images I saw of the actresses who have played her (including Greta Garbo, Vivien Leigh, Jacqueline Bisset, and Keira Knightley) emphasized pensiveness and depression—not a surprise, when you consider the guilt, ostracism and suicide that Anna ultimately endured because of her affair with Vronsky.

So I had to venture far afield to find someone who shows how a smile “heightens the charm of a face”: 1930s Hollywood—or, to be exact, in the case of the photo accompanying this post, the actress Irene Dunne.

This weekend, in reading reviews about the new documentary about the personal and creative partnership of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, it struck me that Ethan Hawke was partly motivated in creating this tribute because younger viewers already had little sense of what this couple meant.

I’m afraid that’s even more the case with Dunne, whose heyday occurred in the 1930s and 1940s, before the use of color became commonplace in film. Consequently, at least a couple of generations of movie fans will not even bother to sample the classic films in which she appeared.

What a pity. As I discussed in this prior post, Dunne was a versatile actress as adept in musicals as in dark dramas.

But she glowed especially in the screwball comedy genre, in films like The Awful Truth, My Favorite Wife and Theodora Goes Wild, where her smile could be marvelously adaptable: loving, understanding, or just radiant with unbounded joy. She was well worth the winning in these films for the likes of onscreen partners Cary Grant and Melvyn Douglas.

Particularly in his later years, when he became increasingly consumed with his spiritual quest and his own marriage deteriorated, Tolstoy himself was given very little to smiling.

But, in his youth and early middle age, he understood concretely that a smile made all the difference in beauty—marring a face when twisted by forces of destruction and evil, but heightening it if filled with inner grace.

Irene Dunne epitomized grace. If you ever meet someone with a similar life force, don’t take for granted how much your life has been enriched by that encounter. The memory of a smile can linger a lifetime.

Monday, July 25, 2022

Movie Quote of the Day (‘Million Dollar Legs,’ As W.C. Fields Reveals the Fate of His Daughter’s Beau)

The security personnel of the nation of Klopstokia have taken away an American brush salesman for some rough treatment, dismaying the woman who’s fallen in love with him, daughter of the tiny country’s president.]
Angela [played by Susan Fleming] [tearfully]: “Father, they won't hurt him, will they?”
The President played by W.C. Fields]: “Only for about two hours—then they'll shoot him.”—Million Dollar Legs (1932), screenplay by Henry Myers, Nicholas T. Barrows, and an uncredited Ben Hecht, based on a story by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, directed by Edward F. Cline

Sunday, July 24, 2022

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Lord Byron, on Samuel Called From the Dead to Predict the Fate of King Saul)

“Death stood all glassy in his fixed eye:
His hand was wither'd, and his veins were dry;
His foot, in bony whiteness, glitter'd there,
Shrunken and sinewless, and ghastly bare;
From lips that moved not and unbreathing frame,
Like cavern'd winds, the hollow accents came.
Saul saw, and fell to earth, as falls the oak,
At once, and blasted by the thunderstroke.”—English Romantic poet George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824), “Saul,” from Hebrew Melodies (1815)
One of the most notorious rakes of all time—and one who spiced many of his verses with biting wit—Lord Byron was, at first glance, the least likely of poets to write on a religious subject, let alone with anything like a reverent attitude.
You can imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered in an anthology of Byron’s work that he had not only written the lines above, describing the Old Testament King Saul’s encounter with the deceased prophet who set him on the path to ruling Israel, Samuel, but that he had written a whole collection of poems with an Old Testament setting, Hebrew Melodies.
The verses were meant to accompany melodies created by Byron’s Jewish friend, Isaac Nathan. As Louis Finkelman noted in a March 2011 article for The Forward, Nathan “adapted some of the melodies straight from those used in the Sephardic synagogues of London,” including, for the more secular poem “She Walks in Beauty,” the Sephardic tune for “Lekha Dodi.”
With “Saul,” Byron uses verses narrative—to which he would return more flamboyantly in his mock epic Don Juan—for a specific Bible episode (1 Samuel 28:3–25). A desperate Saul, unable to perceive a sign from God, calls on the “Witch of Endor” (in violation of his own royal decree banning mediums) -to summon from the dead Samuel, in order to advise Saul what to do on the eve of battle against the Israelites’ longtime foe, the Philistines.
The result is not at all what Saul expected or wanted. At the very sight of Samuel, Saul collapses, “blasted by the thunderstroke”—a foreshadowing of what will happen during battle, when, the “shrunken and sinewless” ghost advises him, not only will the Israelites lose, but Saul and his heir will die. And so it came to pass, as defeat led Saul to commit suicide, even as the captured Jonathan and his brothers are put to death by the Philistines.
So many scandals attached to Lord Byron even during his lifetime that any assessment of his overall morality is, at best, fraught. But at some level, what he read in the Bible left a deep impression on him (even if he did not, of course, conform to its strictures against adultery). In an October 9, 1821 letter to his friend John Murray, Byron wrote that he saw reading the New Testament as “a task,” but that he was a great reader and admirer” of the Old Testament and had even “read them through and through before I was eight years old.” The power of its stories and verses could not be erased.
[The image accompanying this post, The Shade of Samuel Appears to Saul, was created by Italian Baroque painter Salvator Rosa (1615 –1673).]

Saturday, July 23, 2022

Song Lyric of the Day (Paul Simon, on the Fallout From an Earlier “Most Uncertain Hour”)

"I don't know a soul who's not been battered
Don't have a friend who feels at ease
Don't know a dream that's not been shattered
Or driven to its knees."—American singer-songwriter Paul Simon, “American Tune,” from his There Goes Rhymin' Simon LP (1973)

Paul Simon released his mournful anthem “American Tune” in the year that America finally tallied the costs in lives lost from the recently concluded Vietnam War, investigated a criminal President, and experienced the shock of quadrupled oil prices within three months over a foreign conflict.

Simon recognized that public ordeals have their inevitable consequences in private trauma, in ways we can only begin to sense at the time.

Nevertheless, each generation, before and since, though weary at the unexpected challenges in which it finds itself, sings its “American Tune.” Let’s hope that despite ourselves, there will be another generation after us to repeat the process.

Friday, July 22, 2022

Quote of the Day (Bruce McCall, on Sources of Summer Laughter)

“Note: An estimated seventy-five percent of all books of humor that confirm to current laughter-safety guidelines are now out-of-print. Owners of summer cottages may wish to conduct under-bed searches for any book by Erma Bombeck, Andy Rooney, Art Buchwald, Dave Barry, Bill Cosby, or Tim Allen.”—Canadian author-illustrator Bruce McCall, “Shouts and Murmurs: Laughter-Safety Guidelines Set,” The New Yorker, Nov. 19, 2001

Thursday, July 21, 2022

TV Quote of the Day (‘Mad Men,’ With an Ad Man’s View of Love)

“What you call love was invented by guys like me, to sell nylons.” —Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm, pictured) in Mad Men, Season 1, Episode 1, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” original air date July 19, 2007, teleplay by Matthew Weiner, directed by Alan Taylor

Fifteen years ago, Mad Men premiered on AMC, propelling the cable station away from vintage movies and more towards original programming.

More important, it solidified a trend that began nearly a decade before with The Sopranos: an anti-hero (in this case, a smoking, drinking, womanizing ad agency creative director) who kept viewers coming back week after week, despite (or maybe that’s because of) his continual falls from grace.

I know that I couldn’t bear to miss a single one of its 92 episodes in its seven seasons.

For a fine summary about why this quintessential period drama was “a show built to last,” read this blog post by Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz.

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Quote of the Day (Jill Lepore, on Epidemics and Their Coverage)

“Epidemics follow patterns because diseases follow patterns. Viruses spread; they reproduce; they die. Epidemiologists study patterns in order to combat infection. Stories about epidemics follow patterns, too. Stories aren’t often deadly but they can be virulent: spreading fast, weakening resistance, wreaking havoc.”—Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Jill Lepore, “It’s Spreading: Outbreaks, Media Scares, and the Parrot Panic of 1930,” The New Yorker, June 1, 2009

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

TV Quote of the Day (‘Game of Thrones,’ on Power, ‘A Shadow on the Wall’)

“Power is a curious thing, my lord…Power resides where men believe it resides. It’s a trick, a shadow on the wall. And, a very small man can cast a very large shadow.” —Lord Varys (played by Conleth Hill), in Game of Thrones, Season 2, Episode 3, “What Is Dead May Never Die,” original air date Apr. 15, 2012, teleplay by Bryan Cogman, adapted from George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire," directed by Alik Sakharov

Monday, July 18, 2022

Movie Quote of the Day (‘His Girl Friday,’ With a Term of Endearment for an Ex)

Hildy Johnson [played by Rosalind Russell] [addressing her boss and ex-husband, ruthless newspaper editor Walter Burns, played by Cary Grant]: “Walter, you're wonderful, in a loathsome sort of way.” —His Girl Friday (1940), screenplay by Charles Lederer, based on the stage comedy The Front Page, by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, directed by Howard Hawks

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Czeslaw Milosz, on Prayer’s ‘Velvet Bridge’)

“All I know is that prayer constructs a velvet bridge
And walking it we are aloft, as on a springboard,
Above landscapes the color of ripe gold
Transformed by a magic stopping of the sun.”—Polish-American poet, critic, translator and Nobel Literature laureate Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004), “On Prayer

Saturday, July 16, 2022

Quote of the Day (Walt Whitman, on an Earlier American Crisis of the Spirit)

“I say we had best look our times and lands searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing some deep disease. Never was there, perhaps, more hollowness at heart than at present, and here in the United States. Genuine belief seems to have left us. The underlying principles of the States are not honestly believ'd in, (for all this hectic glow, and these melodramatic screamings,) nor is humanity itself believ'd in. What penetrating eye does not everywhere see through the mask? The spectacle is appaling. We live in an atmosphere of hypocrisy throughout. The men believe not in the women, nor the women in the men. A scornful superciliousness rules in literature. The aim of all the littérateurs is to find something to make fun of. A lot of churches, sects, &c., the most dismal phantasms I know, usurp the name of religion. Conversation is a mass of badinage. From deceit in the spirit, the mother of all false deeds, the offspring is already incalculable. An acute and candid person, in the revenue department in Washington, who is led by the course of his employment to regularly visit the cities, north, south and west, to investigate frauds, has talk'd much with me about his discoveries. The depravity of the business classes of our country is not less than has been supposed, but infinitely greater. The official services of America, national, state, and municipal, in all their branches and departments, except the judiciary, are saturated in corruption, bribery, falsehood, mal-administration; and the judiciary is tainted. The great cities reek with respectable as much as non-respectable robbery and scoundrelism. In fashionable life, flippancy, tepid amours, weak infidelism, small aims, or no aims at all, only to kill time. In business, (this all-devouring modern word, business,) the one sole object is, by any means, pecuniary gain. The magician's serpent in the fable ate up all the other serpents; and money-making is our magician's serpent, remaining to-day sole master of the field.” —American poet-editor Walt Whitman (1819–1892), Democratic Vistas (1871)

Friday, July 15, 2022

TV Quote of the Day (‘The Office,’ on a Well-Liked Guy)

Michael Scott [played by Steve Carell]: “Everybody likes the guy who offers them a stick of gum."— The Office, Season 7, Episode 22, “The Inner Circle,” original air date May 5, 2011, teleplay by Charlie Grandy, directed by Matt Sohn

Thursday, July 14, 2022

Quote of the Day (Raymond Chandler, on a Bad Seed of the Filthy Rich)

“The girl and I stood looking at each other. She tried to keep a cute little smile on her face but her face was too tired to be bothered. It kept going blank on her. The smile would wash off like water off sand and her pale skin had a harsh granular texture under the stunned and stupid blankness of her eyes. A whitish tongue licked at the corners of her mouth. A pretty, spoiled and not very bright little girl who had gone very, very wrong, and nobody was doing anything about it. To hell with the rich. They made me sick…. Carmen [Sternwood] stood in front of me, like a bad girl in the principal's office.”— Mystery novelist, short-story writer, and screenwriter Raymond Chandler (1888–1959), The Big Sleep (1939)

The image accompanying this post comes from the 1946 film adaptation of The Big Sleep, with Martha Vickers as “bad girl” Carmen Sternwood and, of course, Humphrey Bogart as private detective Philip Marlowe.

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Quote of the Day (Voltaire, on ‘The Crimes and Misfortunes of History’)

“The great faults of the past are also very useful in many ways; the crimes and misfortunes of history cannot be too frequently pondered on, for whatever people say, it is possible to prevent both." — French author, humanist, rationalist, and satirist Voltaire (1694-1778), The Philosophical Dictionary (1764)

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Quote of the Day (Karl Popper, on Confirming Preconceived Notions)

“If we are uncritical we shall always find what we want: we shall look for, and find, confirmations, and we shall look away from, and not see, whatever might be dangerous to our pet theories.”— Austrian-British philosopher, academic and social commentator Sir Karl Popper (1902 –1994), The Poverty of Historicism (1957)

Monday, July 11, 2022

Quote of the Day (David Brooks, on the 4 Types of E-mail Lists)

“If Aristotle were alive, he would note that there are four types of E-mail lists. There are lists that remind you that the sender went to a better college than you did. There are lists that remind you that he has a better job than you do. There are those that remind you that he has more sex than you do. And finally, there are those that remind you that he is better than you in every respect: spiritually, professionally, and socially.”—Conservative columnist and TV political commentator David Brooks, “Shouts and Murmurs: The A-List E-List,” The New Yorker, reprinted in Fierce Pajamas: An Anthology of Humor Writing from “The New Yorker,” edited by Henry Finder (2001)

Sunday, July 10, 2022

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Anne Lamott, on Forgiveness)

“Sometimes faith looks like myopia: I don’t see faults so clearly as I used of the most important gifts of spiritual faith is forgiveness, and I have grudgingly tugged this gift open over many years, and many hurts, until empathy for the other person has become almost a reflex. I have also grown better at recognizing when I’m the one in need of forgiveness. Most surprisingly, though, I have learned to forgive myself for most of my disappointing character traits and iffier decisions.”— Novelist-essayist Anne Lamott, “Have a Little Faith,” AARP Magazine, December 2014/January 2015

Saturday, July 9, 2022

Quote of the Day (William Faulkner, on Speaking Out for 'Honesty and Truth and Compassion’)

“Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion, against injustice and lying and greed. If you… will do this…you will change the earth. In one generation, all the Napoleons and Hitlers and Caesars and Mussolinis and Stalins, and all the other tyrants who want power and aggrandizement, and all the simple politicians and time-servers who themselves are merely baffled or ignorant or afraid, who have used, or are using, or hope to use, man's fear and greed for man’s enslavement, will have vanished from the face of it.”American Nobel Literature laureate William Faulkner (1897-1962), Address to the Graduating Class at University High School in Oxford, MS (1952)

Sixty years ago this week, William Faulkner died. It had taken more than two decades for him to achieve recognition from the public, but he had already won the Nobel Prize—and would shortly win the first of two Pulitzers—when he addressed local students in his hometown.

If anything, Faulkner’s influence has only grown since his death, as readers see how he came to grips with racism, greed, the despoliation of the environment, and other sins concerning the Deep South but which, in truth, are also wider American dilemmas.

As I read this speech, I could hear echoes of Faulkner’s more famous Nobel Prize acceptance lecture, in which he spoke of “the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.”

Faulkner wrote of the innate dignity and courage that enabled people to survive an age of dictators abroad and “politicians and time-servers” at home. I hope today’s teachers, in spite of dangers from every direction, are instilling in students the lesson Faulkner imparted 70 years ago. I hope that we all, despite our failings, reach for the best in ourselves that he recognized in addition to the enemies that beset us still: “injustice and lying and greed.”

For a succinct consideration of Faulkner’s relationship to Hollywood, where he worked as a screenwriter at a time when his books hadn’t yet caught on with a wide reading public, see Laura Alvarez Trigo’s post onthe PopMeC Research Blog.

Friday, July 8, 2022

Quote of the Day (Percy Bysshe Shelley, Urging the People to ‘Rise Like Lions After Slumber’)

“Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number—
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you—
Ye are many—they are few." —English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), “The Mask of Anarchy: Written on the Occasion of the Massacre at Manchester” (1819)
Two hundred years ago today, Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned in a shipwreck off the coast of Italy at age 29. His private behavior (including adultery) and open radicalism (most notoriously at the time, his avowed atheism) scandalized the English public, and as with the older poet he admired and befriended, Lord Byron, overshadowed his enormous technical skill and grace with verse.
Once the controversies of his lifetime died down, that abundant talent could be better appreciated. At the same time, once that occurred, it also diluted the force of his personal demonstration that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world."
Shelley lived virtually every day of his adult life on the edge. He was skeptical alike in matters of faith and governance, calling, for instance, for his country’s common people to protest the “massacre” alluded to in the above verses at Peterloo, England, in August 1819, when saber-wielding cavalry charged on thousands gathered to demand parliamentary reform.
It would take nearly a half century for parliamentary reform to be enacted in full. It would be seven years after Shelley’s decade for another one of his causes, Catholic Emancipation, to be realized. His defiance towards convention remains an abiding impulse shuddered at by the likes of the neoconservative English journalist and historian Paul Johnson, who included him in his rogues’ gallery of leftist Intellectuals (1989).
For an interesting consideration of the circumstances surrounding Shelley’s death—including conspiracy theories that inevitably circulated—I urge you to read Madeleine Callaghan’s post from the Liverpool University Press Blog.

Movie Quote of the Day (‘Bedazzled,’ on a Faustian Bargain for Prime Minister)

George Spiggott [aka Satan] [played by Peter Cook]: “Now, then, what'd you like to be first? Prime Minister? Oh, no, I've made that deal already.”—Bedazzled (1967), screenplay by Peter Cook, from a story by Dudley Moore, directed by Stanley Donen

As Peter Cook’s clever take on the old Faust tale indicates, Boris Johnson (yes, he’s the one pictured, not the late, lean Mr. Cook) is hardly the first British PM suspected of bargaining with Ol’ Scratch for a stay in 10 Downing Street. 

But the man who used Brexit as his crude instrument for supplanting predecessor Theresa May must now feel that, after only three years in power, his sojourn in Hell is arriving a bit early.

Now that he’s resigned under overwhelming duress—and even then, vowing to serve until his party can find a replacement—Johnson may wish that he had fewer of those Houdini-like instincts long wondered at by the press.

In the end, all of those escapes from political death only prolonged the final agony: questions about what he was doing about former deputy chief whip, Chris Pincher, who was accused of groping two men last week. All of this was too much for nearly 60 members of his government who resigned.

In his overturning of the traditional political order and his fast-and-loose approach to the truth, Johnson has sometimes been compared with Donald Trump. I can’t imagine that Johnson’s former ministers and party colleagues loathe him more than Trump’s did. 

But the political situation in the UK was certainly more conducive to them telling the PM that it was time for him to go.

You can almost hear the sigh of relief over Johnson’s departure coming from the Republic of Ireland. After all, Brexit—and Johnson’s unseemly trashing thrashing about to maintain the loyalty of Ulster Unionists—led him to trash the Protocol agreement his own government negotiated just a few years ago, unnecessarily complicating the survival of the Good Friday Agreement that wound down 30 years of “The Troubles.” 

(For an analysis of the damage caused by Johnson’s blithe disregard for his own diplomacy, see David Lammy’s Guardian article from three weeks ago.)

"The relationship between our governments has been strained and challenged in recent times," acknowledged Taoiseach (Irish PM) Micheál Martin, who urged Johnson’s successor towards “broader bilateral relations between us…[and] to work together in a spirit of respect, trust and partnership." 

Let’s see if the nation that produced the likes of Johnson, chuckling at the antics of the overgrown schoolboy scamp even as he overturned one political norm after another, is now ready to move decisively away from his policies. Lots of luck with that—especially if Peter Cook’s “Mr. Spiggott” has anything to say in the matter.

Thursday, July 7, 2022

Quote of the Day (Gustave Flaubert, on Human Speech)

“Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.”—French novelist Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880), Madame Bovary (1857)

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Quote of the Day (Poet James Thomson, on Summer)

“Who would in such a gloomy state remain
   Longer than nature craves; when ev'ry muse
     And every blooming pleasure wait without,
       To bless the wildly devious morning walk?”— Scottish poet and playwright James Thomson (1700-1748), “Summer,” in The Seasons (1726-1730)

The accompanying photo I took eight years ago shows one of the best places to visit on any summer--or, for that matter, spring or fall--day: the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens.

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Quote of the Day (Oscar Wilde, on the One Thing Still Impossible in Russia)

Michael: “What has the tyrant done now?”

Vera Sabouroff: “Tomorrow martial law is to be proclaimed in Russia.”

Everyone: “Martial law! We are lost! We are lost!”

Alexis Ivanacievitch: “Martial law! Impossible!”

Michael: “Fool, nothing is impossible in Russia but reform.” — Anglo-Irish dramatist, novelist, and poet Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), Vera: Or, The Nihilists (1880)

Monday, July 4, 2022

TV Quote of the Day (‘The Andy Griffith Show,’ With Barney’s Foolproof Method for Remembering Dates Like 1776)

[Barney explains his revolutionary system for remembering famous dates, such as 1776.]

Deputy Barney Fife [played by Don Knotts]: “The first number... is one.”

Sheriff Andy Taylor [played by Andy Griffith]: “Yeah.”

Barney: “Now, that's easy to remember 'cause that's the first number in the alphabet.”

Andy: “Yeah.”

Barney: “Now, the second number... is... you just remember... lucky... seven.”

Andy: “Lucky seven.”

Barney: “See? Now you got one and seven.”

Andy: “Yeah.”

Barney: “Now, what's the third number? Seven. Now, that's easy to remember 'cause you just remembered seven, see?”

Andy: [chuckles] “Yeah, that's right. Yeah.”

Barney: “Now, you got one, seven and seven.”

Andy: “One and... two sevens, yeah.”

Barney: “Now, what's the last number? All right, here's how you remember that: What's one... from... seven?”

Andy: “Six.”

Barney: “Six.”

[They laugh]

Barney: “1776.”

Andy: “Yeah, that's good.”

Barney: “Yeah, it works out, too.”

Andy: “Wouldn't it be just as easy just to go ahead and remember 1776?”

Barney: “Well, if you want to do things the easy way, you're never gonna learn anything!”The Andy Griffith Show, Season 3, Episode 23, “Andy Discovers America,” original air date Mar. 4, 1963, teleplay by John Whedon, directed by Bob Sweeney