Enjoy the last days before Lent. If you intend to watch the Academy Awards on Sunday, you may be interested to know the backstory of one of the nominated documentaries, Cavedigger. A few months ago, I read about the documentary’s subject, Ra Paulette the cave sculptor, in “How a modern caveman could win an Academy Award.” It is worth your time to visit just to see the incredible work that the man does. From the article:
The caves are not enormous; mostly, their square footage would be comparable to rooms or perhaps small houses. His ambitions for them are outsize, though, as he describes in a new documentary shortlisted for an Academy Award, “CaveDigger,” directed by Jeffrey Karoff:
“These caves are designed as transcendent spaces. The fact that the cave is underground and you feel the earth around you yet the sun is pouring in: Those are the juxtapositions of the two metaphors of our life, the inside, the within, and the without. it’s a perceptual trick that brings out deep, expansive emotionality.”
And when he says “transcendent,” he isn’t just being flowery. “I want to subject mercilessly a person to the aesthetic in a way that stimulates a deep emotionality to the point where it becomes a transformative tool. That’s a big goal, but I’m ready for it.”
He doesn’t do it for glory, and he certainly doesn’t do it for money: When he’s been paid at all for his work, he’s generally earned perhaps $15 or $20 an hour.
“I don’t put any energy into being a success in the world,” he says. “My strategy is to wait for something from heaven to come along and lay it on me.”
He has taken a few commissions, not all of which have gone well.
“Ra’s not your typical person, which is what I like about him,” says his close friend, ex-girlfriend and onetime patron, Liz Riedel. “He doesn’t do things for himself, he does things for art. He does things for other people”—meaning the viewer of his art, not necessarily the person paying for it.
Riedel and her husband, Shel Neymark, commissioned a piece from him that was supposed to take two months and cost $2,000. They knew what they were getting into, though: They privately doubled his estimate, figuring that Paulette being Paulette, he’d take four months and $4,000.
It took two years—during which Riedel learned that she had cancer. She underwent grueling treatments. The couple asked Paulette many times to stop, and even believed once or twice that they’d convinced him. Still he refused to leave the project.
“When he has a shovel in his hand, he’s like a coke addict with piles of coke. He just loves to keep going and going,” Neymark said.
They admit, though: The work he produced for them was transcendent.
Paulette’s story reminds me of one of my first lessons in college, though I did not learn it at the time. In a freshman American political philosophy course, the professor (one of many Straussians in my formation) explained the liberal commercial republican ideal of bourgeois self reliance and then asked about the people who do not fit well into such a regime—like artists. I considered myself a libertarian at the time, and I reckoned that such a man would just live in poverty if not starve. I didn’t give it much more thought than a Social Darwinian sigh and a nonchalant tant pis pour lui. If our hypothetical man wanted to flourish, he would have to play the game like everyone else. Over time, though, I came to realize that a society impoverishes itself by not furnishing niches for human diversity in disposition and talent. Of course, the breadth that a regime can allow depends on its strength; a civilization under constant threat of martial annihilation necessarily focuses on making its people soldiers rather than artists. Yet, it is the less for it. Sparta is a fact to behold, but its excellence came at great costs. Regimes—and their lawgivers—must weigh such benefits and costs in trying to maximize the excellence of their people. A nation of shopkeepers has its value, but it offers a very narrow path for human fulfillment.
You may have read this week that Amazon has started a Christian book imprint that will publish “faith-based non-fiction and fiction.” I first saw the story on Yahoo News. The article only has a few comments, but I wish to address them because they unfortunately indicate common opinions that I find objectionable. The first comment, by a “Chad Vader,” finds “faith based fiction” problematic:
“will publish “faith-based non-fiction and fiction,”
Faith based non-fiction? Really?
Religion has one intent. To save souls. I could never understand “faith based fiction.”
Isn’t that the definition of a snake oil salesman?
It’s hard enough, and takes “faith”, to follow what you wish to believe is true. Now let’s generate fiction (truly, make believe) to really get the holy spirit rolling?
Religion should NEVER use fantasy to help convince.
Amazon sees how easy it is to make money selling snake oil.
My advice. It’s an area of business that’s only purpose is to take advantage of others. Stay out of it.
It may be easy to dismiss “Chad Vader” and like-minded folks as philistines, but Chad Vader likely appreciates “non-faith based fiction” (though we might ask if there is such a thing), given his pen name and avatar. Though apparently a Christian, Chad may be a victim of creeping secularism that has built a “wall of separation” in Chad’s mind between religion and art. What justification can there be for such a separation? Man is a worshiping animal, and man is a creative animal. Only a bizarre psychic schism would prevent a man’s religion from informing his art. For a man creates from his inner resources—training, talent, experience, knowledge, inner state—and his religion has probably affected a large portion of those resources. Why would one want to enfeeble the life giving springs of art?
Chad’s worry seems to be that Christian fiction would sully the truth value of the gospel, and such reminds him of a snake oil salesman. One obvious difference is that the artist is transparent about his fiction; he does not pass it off as a historical record. He “sells” a story that the muses (or divine light, though I repeat myself) inspired him to create, and the truth value of such rests in its honesty about its subject matter (usually the human condition), though its particularities are made up. The snake oil peddler, by contrast, deceives his customers by claiming that his product is something that it is not.
Moreover, one would think that a Christian would readily see the usefulness of fiction to religion—especially since the author and finisher of our faith was so adept in making up ingenious parables that have taught billions of largely uneducated people many rather profound lessons. “Religion should NEVER use fantasy to help convince.” But what about using fantasy to elucidate? Or what about using fiction as a form of doxology? There are many literary genres that convey truth, and it is meet and right to employ all the treasures of the arts to glorify God. I am reminded of McGuckin’s essay on the Beautiful. Religion informs art, and art informs religion. They are both gifts from God to be rendered back to him in gratitude.
Another commentator—“J”—makes the following cynical point:
“and authors and promoters alike are still trying to understand the perfect formula for turning those books into dollars.”
Religion and money. That’s what it’s all about. Get the rubes to buy your books, What a racket.
I addressed J’s point in “Disney the Corrupter of Youth?”:
I watched a fascinating but revolting documentary a year or so ago about marketing to children, but I cannot remember the name. The program argued that companies manipulate children to determine their parents’ spending behavior. I believe that the documentary even stated that some cartoons were produced with the intention of selling merchandise. Obviously, the coin counters at Disney have mastered that game. Nonetheless, we cannot reduce the artistic product to the merchandising, even if, in one sense, the chief reason for the product’s existence is the merchandise. For there were writers and animators who crafted a piece of art. Their efforts may have been commissioned, facilitated, and perhaps even directed by the coin counters, but their actions as producers of art are not identical to their actions as money-makers for the company.
The abbot’s criticism could be applied to any human undertaking that coexists with paid work. We who find the coin counters merely pallid shades of real manhood hope that artists create art for the love of such creation and that teachers disseminate their learning for the love of knowledge. Yet, for most artists and teachers, their work has some component of wage-earning, as well. Unless one is rich, one has to pay for shelter and victuals. A person has to feed his children. Consider the history of art, and you will quickly see how most of the revered masters worked for commission. I think that it is clear that their work far transcends simply the desire to pay the bills, but practical matters matter in our human life of scarcity.
Perhaps, the abbot has a point about Disney the company—the commodification of culture in the age of mass production is disgusting. However, fine works can come from sordid circumstances. The nineteenth century amply supplies examples. Moreover, we should ponder the difficulties that underlie this issue. What is the end of production? Is it simply money-making, or are there other proper ends for human endeavors that may earn a living?
The head honchos at Amazon likely just want to increase profits and to grow the company. So? Many aristocrats over the centuries just wanted to show off their status when they commissioned sculptures, musical compositions, and paintings. Is there any doubt that their petty desire to invoke jealousy amongst their peers resulted in a marvelous enrichment of Western civilization? May Amazon’s venture bring forth good fruit.
Speaking of Amazon and of Christian fiction, fellow Orthodox Ohioan (and Beltway transplant) Deacon Brian Patrick Mitchell has published a new book set at the beginning of the fourth century—A Crown of Life: A Novel of the Great Persecution. I wish the good deacon much success and many more visits by the muses.
Christ is born! May my fellow Orthodox Christians continue to enjoy the festive season. Happy birthday, as well, to my young nephew—many years!
The Orthodox commemorate the visit of the Magi with the Nativity and not on the feast of the Theophany. As it is still Christmastide for us, I would like to offer you two short pieces shared by Fr. Z. for Epiphany in the Roman Church. The first is “The Gift of the Magi”—a predictable but sweet short story by William Sydney Porter (O. Henry).
Fr. Z. also showcases an interesting passage in Helena by Evelyn Waugh: “An Epiphany Prayer to the Magi for Self-Absorbed Promethean Neopelagians.” Liber locorum communium provides a longer passage that put the Empress’ thoughts in more context:
But by Twelfth Night she rallied and on the eve set out by litter along the five rough miles to the shrine of the Nativity. There was no throng of pilgrims. Macarius and his people kept Epiphany in their own church. Only the little community of Bethlehem greeted her and led her to the room they had prepared. She rested there dozing until an hour before dawn when they called her and led her out under the stars, then down into the stable-cave, where they made a place for her on the women’s side of the small, packed congregation.
The low vault was full of lamps and the air close and still. Silver bells announced the coming of three vested, bearded monks, who like the kings of old now prostrated themselves before the altar. So the long liturgy began.
Helena knew little Greek and her thoughts were not in the words nor anywhere in the immediate scene. She forgot even her quest and was dead to everything except the swaddled child long ago and those three royal sages who had come from so far to adore him.
‘This is my day,’ she thought, ‘and these are my kind.’
Perhaps she apprehended that her fame, like theirs, would live in one historic act of devotion; that she too had emerged from a kind of οὐτοπία or nameless realm and would vanish like them in the sinking nursery fire-light among the picture-books and the day’s toys.
‘Like me,’ she said to them, ‘you were late in coming. The shepherds were here long before; even the cattle. They had joined the chorus of angels before you were on your way. For you the primordial discipline of the heavens was relaxed and a new defiant light blazed amid the disconcerted stars.
‘How laboriously you came, taking sights and calculating, where the shepherds had run barefoot! How odd you looked on the road, attended by what outlandish liveries, laden with such preposterous gifts!
‘You came at length to the final stage of your pilgrimage and the great star stood still above you. What did you do? You stopped to call on King Herod. Deadly exchange of compliments in which began that unended war of mobs and magistrates against the innocent!
‘Yet you came and were not turned away. You too found room before the manger. Your gifts were not needed, but they were accepted and put carefully by, for they were brought with love. In that new order of charity that had just come to life, there was room for you, too. You were not lower in the eyes of the holy family than the ox or the ass.
‘You are my especial patrons,’ said Helena, ‘and patrons of all late-comers, of all who have a tedious journey to make to the truth, of all who are confused with knowledge and speculation, of all who through politeness make themselves partners in guilt, of all who stand in danger by reason of their talents.
‘Dear cousins, pray for me,’ said Helena, ‘and for my poor overloaded son. May he, too, before the end find kneeling-space in the straw. Pray for the great, lest they perish utterly. And pray for Lactantius and Marcias and the young poets of Trèves and for the souls of my wild, blind ancestors; for their sly foe Odysseus and for the great Longinus.
‘For His sake who did not reject your curious gifts, pray always for all the learned, the oblique, the delicate. Let them not be quite forgotten at the Throne of God when the simple come into their kingdom.’
—Evelyn Waugh, Helena: a novel, chap.11, Epiphany ((London: Chapman & Hall, 1950), pp. 237-240).
Superb! And a very much needed prayer.
I wish my fellows on the old calendar a joyous Christmastide. On this day after Christmas, we celebrate the Synaxis of the Theotokos. I suspect that the Solemnity of the Mother of God that the Roman Church observes on January 1 evolved from this feast. The Synaxis of the Theotokos follows a pattern in the Church calendar whereby we remember holy men and women (and angels) on the day following a great feast in which they play a part. For example, we celebrate the Nativity of the Theotokos on September 8/21 and the feast of Joachim and Anna, her parents, on September 9/22. Similarly, we observe the Synaxis of John the Baptist (January 7/20) on the day after the Theophany (January 6/19), when we celebrate the baptism of the Lord, the feast of Simeon and the Prophetess Anna (February 3/16) on the day after the Meeting of Our Lord (Candlemas on February 2/15), and the feast of the Archangel Gabriel (March 26/April 8) the day after the Annunciation (March 25/April 7).
For your pleasure, here are many Ukrainian Christmas carols:
Snow is falling on this beautiful winter day. Merry Christmas to the new calendarists and Advent greetings to my fellows on the old calendar.
Fitting for the day is one of my favorite carols, “In the Bleak Midwinter.” Here is the choir of King’s College in Cambridge singing Gustav Holst’s “Cranham” setting for Christina Rossetti’s lovely poem:
Here also is a video of Julie Andrews in a Christmas special from A.D. 1973.
In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.
Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.
In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.
Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,
Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,
The ox and ass and camel which adore.
Angels and archangels may have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;
But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,
Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.
What can I give Him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.
The sweet little song reminds me of the uncanny power of poetry. It can be so simple, but the images that it deftly evokes move one’s soul in a fascinating manner.
Enjoy the festive season.
Merry Christmas to everyone who follows the new calendar! A blessed feast of Saints Spyridon and Herman to the O.C.‘s out there.
For the day, I offer you “Eddi’s Service” by Kipling:
Eddi, priest of St. Wilfrid
In his chapel at Manhood End,
Ordered a midnight service
For such as cared to attend.
But the Saxons were keeping Christmas,
And the night was stormy as well.
Nobody came to service,
Though Eddi rang the bell.
“‘Wicked weather for walking,”
Said Eddi of Manhood End.
“But I must go on with the service
For such as care to attend.”
The altar-lamps were lighted,—
An old marsh-donkey came,
Bold as a guest invited,
And stared at the guttering flame.
The storm beat on at the windows,
The water splashed on the floor,
And a wet, yoke-weary bullock
Pushed in through the open door.
“How do I know what is greatest,
How do I know what is least?
That is My Father’s business,”
Said Eddi, Wilfrid’s priest.
“But—three are gathered together—
Listen to me and attend.
I bring good news, my brethren!”
Said Eddi of Manhood End.
And he told the Ox of a Manger
And a Stall in Bethlehem,
And he spoke to the Ass of a Rider,
That rode to Jerusalem.
They steamed and dripped in the chancel,
They listened and never stirred,
While, just as though they were Bishops,
Eddi preached them The World,
Till the gale blew off on the marshes
And the windows showed the day,
And the Ox and the Ass together
Wheeled and clattered away.
And when the Saxons mocked him,
Said Eddi of Manhood End,
“I dare not shut His chapel
On such as care to attend.”
May the feast enlighten the darkness.
On this Adventist Friday the thirteenth, I offer you something sweet and heavenly—the old German carol “Susani.” Here it is performed by Protestant boys in the Dresden Kreuzkirche:
Lest Lutherans feel privileged, here is the carol sung by Bavarian Catholic fellows (the “Cathedral Sparrows” of Regensburg) in front of what appears to be the Nuremberg Frauenkirche:
I’m a sucker for lullabyish Christmas carols. Lieblich!
Last year, Joel Miller posted a charming encomium of C.S. Lewis on the occasion of his death in “Giving thanks for C.S. Lewis.” Here is a wonderful story from the article:
My father, an English teacher, once told me a story that might illustrate just how good natured Lewis was. Another teacher he heard at a conference recounted how she once assigned her college prep students a book review. They could pick any book, and one of the boys in the class chose something by Lewis.
The teacher was excited when the student filed his report. She was a big Lewis fan and had read everything he’d written to that point. But the problem was that Lewis certainly hadn’t written this book. She was convinced the kid made up the report. So–much to the boy’s horror–she sent the report to Lewis.
Six weeks later, the teacher received a response. Lewis was famously serious about answering his correspondence. Inside the letter was a sealed note to the student. She gave the boy the note.
With more than a little fear, he opened it to find words to these effect: “I want to thank you for the review of a book I may someday write.” Lewis went on to say that if the imaginative boy should ever write a book of his own, to please send him a copy.
Today marks the fiftieth anniversary of Lewis’ leave-taking. To celebrate this wonderful man, let us read some of his work over the weekend. Memory eternal!
I survived my Friday return from the Belle & Sebastian concert. I took the 915 commuter bus from the American Indian Museum to Columbia Mall next to the Merriweather Post Pavilion. It only cost $4.25, and a kind lady gave me the quarter when I asked if she could make change while we waited for the bus. I arrived at the gate around 6:15 PM, thinking that the opening act by Yo La Tengo would start at 6:30 PM. Unfortunately, the doors opened at 6:30 PM, and I had ninety minutes to tour the grounds. I had never before been to the Merriweather Post Pavilion, and I found it very agreeable. The place is huge with many subclimates in the various niches of the campus. For the venue, there is a wide lawn, then a large covered arena with stadium seating, and finally the floor or “pit,” which is where I was headed, having purchased my ticket within four minutes of the concert’s pre-sale opening in February. I was fortunate that my browser crashed because I originally was assigned a seat for “best seat available.” When I tried a few minutes later, the seat offered was farther from the stage, and I cursed the fates in a manner quite unworthy of Homer. Then, however, I discovered the floor option by luck or divine guidance, and I was thrilled . . . and somewhat awed that I had narrowly avoided missing out on such a wonderful opportunity. Small blessings like that seem to happen all the time. Anyway, it was a tumultuous four minutes back in the winter.
I waited in the rear section of the floor for the show to start so that I could lean against the wall above which the seats began. When Yo La Tengo commenced, the crowd was immediately into it. It was a very different environment from the Belle & Sebastian concert three years ago at Constitution Hall. Maybe the increased energy level was due to the facts that M.P.P. was an outdoor venue, that it was Friday, and that it was summer. Regardless, this crowd was ready to dance, sing, and make merry. I liked the change. Though the opening act had a large and appreciative fan base in the audience, I felt ambivalent. Georgia Hubley had a lovely, soulful voice, and some of the numbers were quite complementary to a Belle & Sebastian setting, but Ira Kaplan’s possessed antics made me uneasy. I know that musicians tap into a Dionysian flow, but it is rather revolting to witness when you do not fall under the same spell—it has an effect similar to the smell of eggs or fish for someone who is not eating them. I did find the lead’s assortment of guitars fascinating, and then I read later that I am not alone. I spent Kaplan’s orgiastic moments figuring out the pattern for the light show and people watching, and I was happy for the intermission to arrive.
When I returned to the floor for our beloved Scots to start, I placed myself close to the stage—very close. I could have been in the center had I stationed myself there at 6:30 PM, but I knew that I would not have been able to hold my ground alone given nature’s occasional requirements for me to leave the venue. Still, I was quite happy with my space—close enough to touch the side stage but away from the center so that I did not feel like I was blocking anyone’s view. Here is a snapshot by my pitiable phone camera:
The show was excellent! Bands have good days and bad days with performances, and this was a very good day for Belle & Sebastian. They charged onto the stage and started out with the energetic yet ornerily titled instrumental “Judy Is a Dick Slap.” Murdoch, Jackson, and Martin all sang better than they did three years ago, with studio recording quality at times. In a moment of doubt during “Another Sunny Day,” I even wondered if they somehow were using pre-recordings, but they were clearly live. It was fantastic. And the members seemed happy, too. Their vacation from band life over the last few years while Murdoch had been busy with God Help the Girl has been good for them. They were enjoying being there and being together. As I mentioned, the crowd’s vibe was enthusiastic and participatory, and the crew obviously felt comfortable being so welcomed and celebrated by the audience. Indeed, it is striking to notice how the youth from Glasgow have matured into a confidant live act. See, for instance, the following rendition of “The Loneliness of a Middle Distance Runner” in what appears to be their first televised gig. I love the song, but Murdoch and Campbell come across a bit unnerved.
They are long past that. Murdoch and company now know that they are adored by their audience, and they show love in return, much to the perturbation of the security detail. It has become customary for Belle & Sebastian to invite people to dance on the stage, and such happened tonight. I resisted the urge, though I could have done so given my location. Once the stage was rather full (and I was worrying about all those wires and the potential for accidents), more folks from the floor tried to get onto the stage. Those poor bouncers, trying to maintain order and everyone’s well aligned vertebrae, while Scotland’s finest indulge in heedless pop star generosity and partyishness. After “The Boy with the Arab Strap” and “Legal Man,” the dancers shook the hands and patted the backs of the band, and even the serious Bobby Kildea was smiling brightly. It was a good time, though far too short. Two hours with B&S is just an appetizer. It makes me want to become a short term roadie just to be able to travel with them across the country.
After the show, reality reasserted itself, and I had to find a way back to D.C. I was able to share an overpriced taxi with others to the Silver Spring metro. The red line was closed between Silver Spring and New York Avenue (er, hm, “NoMa-Gallaudet”😉, and they were running free shuttles to New York Avenue. Once I got to “NoMa,” I just decided to walk home, wishing to save a couple bucks after shelling out my ticket’s worth in cab fare. I do not regret it, though. I listened to my Belle & Sebastian album collection for the rest of the weekend.
This evening, I am journeying way out to the Merriweather Post Pavilion in bufu Maryland to see Belle & Sebastian again in concert. I have no idea how I shall return to civilization (defined quite liberally, of course), but maybe I can hitchhike back to the District with some other towner tramps. Why would they build a venue so inaccessible and then offer no transit options that run late enough to take after an evening concert? Howard County, what are you thinking?
Anyway, here is one of B&S’s proudly amateurish videos for “Come on Sister” from Write about Love:
Career fantasies—and Stevie is a butcher?!?!? What a crowd!