The Cooking Gene

27 02 2019

I read this book recently, so I will just jot down some thoughts here. In general, reading books like this remind me of how shallow my roots are in this country. Mexican cuisine tends to be celebrated (even if in a bastardized form), while “soul food” such as collard greens and corn grits are little appreciated outside of the South and historically black communities. Personally, I like Southern food, and I think it just as nuanced and cultured as any other cuisine. Good gumbo or fried chicken is an art. At the same time, there is a sort of gentrification of these rural “uncultured” foods that I can also recognize as a concern. The throwaway foods of yesterday become the delicacies of today, and that can be very problematic. Read the rest of this entry »


The Benedict Option

6 02 2019

I have mulled over doing a review of this book that I recently read, and I am still not sure I can do it justice. The difficulty that I am finding is addressing the complexity and nuance of Dreher’s description of the problem of the contemporary conservative Christian malaise. The book draws inspiration from the last line of Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s book, After Virtue, wherein he contrasts the violent revolutionary Trotsky to the humble quiet movement of the monastic founder, St. Benedict. Dreher visits monastic communities as well as quasi-monastic lay communities that are trying to live a devout traditional life in the midst of the maelstrom of change that is 21st century society. Dreher, both in this book and on his widely-read blog, continues to document the perceived persecution of conservative Christians (Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox) who refuse to go along with the liberal sexual politics of the modern era, among other changes. Read the rest of this entry »

This is not a liturgical post

19 05 2011

It is with some reluctance that I comment on Geoffrey Hull’s book, Banished Heart: Origins of Heteropraxis in the Catholic Church. I am not really interested in liturgy (as I have stated before), nor did I find the book all that compelling. Nevertheless, even my newly recovered philosophical orientation has not prevented me from pursuing a broad range of interests. A book that claims to analyze the degeneration of the religious ethos of the West can thus be of some interest to me.

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One of ballet’s Old Believers

17 02 2011

My wife is now reading the book being reviewed here . I agree with the reviewer on some issues, and will have to return more in depth to some of these ideas once I actually read the book. Here is the final part of the review:

Homans’s vehemence in upholding the values of elegance and proportion is heartening, a testament to the coherence and harmoniousness of ballet’s basic principles and codes. And inevitably, I too am captive to my own prejudices and experiences. Having come to ballet as an adult, in the post-Balanchine era, I find that my perspective is necessarily different from Homans’s. Her credo finds its strongest expression in the final chapter of Apollo’s Angels, a provocative essay with the lugubrious title “The Masters Are Dead and Gone.” Homans postulates that ballet is dying and perhaps beyond life support, complaining about the “dull, flat-screen look of today’s dances and dancers,” “artistically moribund” revivals, “dispiriting” performances that are “dull and lack vitality,” and an “inaccessible avant-garde.” Even ballet’s angels, it seems, are falling from the sky.

But ballet is always dying. Like all dance, it exists purely in time and leaves no record, and is an art of the external present. Unlike music, it does not have a consistent written language; video can capture only its shadow because it lacks the third dimension, where dancing lives. So we are left with the present. As Balanchine said, “There is only now.” In this light Homans’s discouragement feels like fatigue, her disappointment like complacency. She may tire of seeing yet another production of Giselle or Balanchine’s Theme and Variations, but what about the person who is seeing these ballets for the first time, who stumbles out of the theater in a daze, in tears of disbelief at what he has just witnessed? Is this not worth preserving, worth fighting for? As Homans wrote several years ago, in a different mood, “Who are we to hold old memories so tightly? Perhaps it is time to stop mourning and move on.”

I agree and disagree. One of my most recent themes here is that there is no “tradition” properly considered. Even our idea of ballet, of a woman in pointe shoes floating across the stage, is a radical transformation from the original court dancing of Louis XIV. As the reviewer also points out, Balanchine was also a great innovator. While I respect greatly Balanchine as the greatest choreographer of the 20th century at least, to say that there is no ballet history after him is a bit of an exaggeration. Not much of an exaggeration to be sure, but to say that an artform that has changed so much is coming to an end may be the real exaggeration. Really, how old are even the ballets of Petipa and Bournonville compared to the grand scheme of Western art? Not even as old as Beethoven. Don’t count ballet out yet.

But there are some factors that even the reviewer does not take into consideration that are also working against ballet’s future. It is truly an aristocratic art, and thus needs an aristocratic scale to be properly executed. Many have said that the young dancers today, in spite of being faster or being able to jump higher, and so on, have little musicality, little ability to carry themselves in the ethos of the ballets, etc. Really, this is a problem with many arts, including such things as traditional liturgy (not that liturgy really matters in the grand scheme of things). We live in a different world of blogging, tweeting, video games, and gadgets doing all sorts of things that fit in our pockets. What can a pas de deux really teach us? As the years go by, the things of the past begin to make less and less sense. Perhaps future generations will take up the mantle and carry on the arts of an autocratic past, but if there are other things that are seen as being more worth the while, one should not hold one’s breath waiting for a renaissance.

Notes on Maritain on Luther

30 12 2010

As insinuated previously, I have been re-reading Jacques Maritain’s Three Reformers. I first read this work over ten years ago now as an impressionable college student, and now one can only blush at the easy polemical points that Maritain tries to score against his long-dead adversaries. The three reformers are, of course, Luther, Descartes, and Rousseau, who Maritain thinks are the three founding figures of decadent modernity.
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The bewitched automobile

29 09 2010

Well, now, I’ll tell a story what happened to an old lady and her husband down close Hanover. They decided they’d buy themselves a new car – so they did. Well, when Saturday evening come, why, the old gentleman said to his wife, “Now, let’s take a ride in the new car, this evening.” “All right.” They started off and they got in as fer as Hanover. And right at the square in Hanover the care stopped. Nobody could start it. They done everything they knowed, got garage fellows there to look at it, nobody could find anything wrong. Car wouldn’t move. Somebody said, “Well, you go out to Mrs. K. and tell her about this.”

Went out to Mrs. K and told her, and Mrs. K said, “Well, I’ll write you a piece of paper here and you don’t – you’re not to read it. You take it back to the car and put it on the starter and put your foot on this paper, on the starter, and,” she said, “your car will go.” And so they did. Went back a whole crowd around the car. They put this piece of paper on the starter and he put his foot on it, and the car started right off, and away they went. Didn’t have no more trouble that evening with the car.

So the next morning some time, why, they got someone come and said, “Well, the neighbor woman over there is awful sick.” “Well,” they said, “what’s wrong with her?” Said, “She’s in bed, she’s jist that sick she can’t be up.” And this was the woman that put the spell on the automobile. And Mrs. K. fixed her business fer her that she didn’t bother nobody around there fer awhile.

-Text from Don Yoder, “Witch tales from Adams County”, from south-central Pennsylvannia, found in Buying the Wind: Regional Folklore in the United States.

The fount of philosophy

23 08 2010

Souls cannot ascend without music.


The common intellectual history of the West, especially since the Enlightenment, has stated that philosophical thought grew out of a rejection of the old mythologies that had come before it. The Greeks were the first “Europeans”: those who truly began to question the ungodly superstitions of the Egyptians and Babylonians, as well as their own. The evident skepticism of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle is thought to be at the very least inimical to the interests of classical Greek religion. Philosophy is thus seen as the beginning of the death of myth, and the prelude to the rational world in which we inhabit today.

It is a very reassuring story, but it is not necessarily the real one. Recent scholars have begun to dig into the roots of ancient philosophy, and are finding more continuity than rupture; more sympathy with “ancient superstition” than an inveterate form of rationalist positivism. There was of course the hubbub of a couple of months back when a scholar came up with evidence that the Platonic dialogues were embedded with Pythagorean musical scales. There came forth the idea, quite foreign to modern people used to the “data in, discourse out” model of philosophizing, that the text has more in it than words and ideas. It is a sort of divine play in itself: a representation of the eternal cosmogony. On the other hand, many scholars are seeing at the root of the philosophical enterprise an ancient method of inner transformation that is quite distant from our own ideas of philosophy. Philosophy was more tied to ritual and religion than it is in contemporary practice. What philosophy was trying to do initially was not break free from the “mythology” that came before it, but radically return to its source.
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The saints vs. the locusts

12 08 2010

Or: What the Doctors of the Church are really for

The doctors of the Church were considered to have special power over insects and other agricultural pests. In Socuéllamos (Ciudad Real) a lottery was held among the doctors of the Church to choose the saint for a vow against locusts and vine worms. In other towns St. Ambrose and St. Thomas Aquinas were used. Perhaps the theologian saints can be explained by the custom of ritual excommunication of grasshoppers and insect pests. In ecclesiastical trial what lawyer could present a more convincing case than a doctor of the Church?

-William Christian, Local Religion in Sixteenth-Century Spain

To clarify, what is being spoken of consistently here is not some favoring of “local religion” as the manifestation of the pure faith of the noble savage. That does not tell the whole story, nor is it fair to either the “experts” or the “plebs”. To the experts, since it is from them that much of what is “exotic” in “folk religion” originates. Often “popular religion” is really just the remnant of philosophical beliefs left behind by cultural elites in favor of a newer, more enlightened religion. Arguably, this is the case regarding such things as the evil eye in much of the Catholic world and the “dragging of the tongue” in Italy that was initially introduced to the populace by missionary friars. On the other hand, such a patronizing attitude excludes the cultural agency of the populace. The laity understood many complex theological concepts better than many would give them credit, and often better than those who sought to educate them regarding these doctrines. In some ways, they could grasp things more intuitively than many educated, ideologically driven pedagogues.

It is the existence of this “intuitive Catholicism” that seems to throw many of my readers off. I should repeat here that it is not some sort of straightfoward exchange. What we really have is a continual struggle over symbols and what they mean; ideas and how we interpret them. For the Spanish town dweller around the time of the Counter-Reformation, the office of Doctor of the Church was not primarily one of the teacher of abstract doctrines. While such duties were important to some, the average Catholic there sought to incorporate the saint into the basic cosmovision of survival and patronage. In this case, the best way to get rid of locusts and other pests was to try them in an ecclesiastical court, and invoke the “smartest” saints to be the prosecution.

It is that sense of “organic” religiosity, the very ground of belief, that I seek to study. In doing this, I hope to avoid all ideological posturing. In the trials of the locusts by the saints, we have a perfect harmony between the “high” and “low” religiosities often contrasted on this blog. In the end, they need each other, though in my estimation it is best if they remain distinct.

above: Miguel Jacinto Melendez’s St. Augustine conjuring a plague of locusts

Resplendent bodies

17 05 2010

Cuerpos Resplandecientes: Santos Populares Argentinos by Rosa Lojo

Over the years in Latin America, the idea of the “santo pagano”, “santo popular”, or “santo informal” has been the subject of many studies and literary pursuits. From regional folklore, the figure of the folk saint has often become a figure of class resistance, the assertion of plebian pride, and a national symbol. This is due a great deal to the general secularization of Latin America in the the last fifty years, the subsequent decline of the power of the Catholic Church over cultural affairs, and the feeling of exclusion that large parts of these societies feel towards the general cultural discourse. In the face of the modernization of religion, people feel that they need to carve out a niche for their own saints, their own intercessors, who defend them from the same institutions that the mainstream Church seeks to uphold.
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A sum of disunities

15 04 2010

The dynamic of eighteenth century French society, what Cobban meant by the “sum” of disunities, is somewhat more difficult to explain. But it is important to understand, for it is what constituted the French social ethos and set it off from that of England. Disunites, remnants of medievalism, plagued early modern European states generally. Individuals moved with a high degree of freedom and security within their corporate group, protected by its rights, but the groups themselves were often at odds with one another… Eli Heckscher put it succinctly when he said that for mercantilists the collective entity was not “a nation unified by common race, speech, and customs” but “the state,” which is to say, the crown and the territory and the populations it governed. In most cases, early modern states included many varied social and ethnic groupings, with which the crown authorities, particularly in France, were willing to “deal tolerantly so long as they did not conflict with the interests of the state.”

Jerah Johnson, found in the collection of essays, Creole New Orleans: Race and Americanization

This is a very rich passage in terms of dissecting the transition of societies in modernity. The pre-modern model was very much focused on the local for necessary reasons. The idea of the nation-state being a dominant force in determining your identity was not possible because the means of mass communication simply were not there to create such cohesion. A Frenchman in the 18th century probably had no idea that he was French, especially if he spoke Occitan or a dialect of German. The nobility probably had a sense of being “French” only insofar as they wanted to imitate the habits and customs practiced at the court of Versailles. It is arguable, however, that the homogenization of all peoples within a political boundary into “one nation” did not take place until the nineteenth century.

Modernity in its highest phase thus equals the death of the local. Local accents die, local foods die, local tales are cast into the oblivion of anthropological scholarship. They either die, or they are assimilated into the “national whole”, just as foods and language are changed to “fit into” the ethos of the dominant culture. (American “Italian” or “Chinese” food for example.) This is not so much a “tragic” thing, as an inevitable thing. I am not one to be reactionary for reaction’s sake, nor “localist” just for the sake of romanticist provincialism. After all, every time honored tradition is at bottom an adaptation of something else that has its origin in a not so pristine past.

But neither should we overlook the dangers of this drive to unify everything. Especially in our deepest philosophical and theological beliefs, we cannot disregard the fact that we function under a daily regime where difference is to be stamped out in the name of societal harmony. Even in the most “postmodern”, politically correct acceptances of “diversity”, there is a subtext of totalizing liberalism: it’s okay to be diverse, as long as you are diverse “like us”.

For me, when I look at such institutions like the Catholic Church, for example, I cannot help but see the dangers of homogenization being at the heart of all things that I fear. We must sing the same songs, use the same ceremonies, have the exact same points of view. It is not that I am arguing for the “liberal” pluralism that I despise. I more argue for a Catholicism where “difference” is tolerated, if only under the table, in an unspoken agreement that maybe some Catholics are “better” than others, but we are all in the same boat. Perhaps it is a pipe dream on my part, but I dream of being Catholic in the context in which perfection does not equal conformity. That is not at all clear, but I hope at least some of you know what I am talking about.