Saturday, October 10, 2015

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich


Opening Passage:

At five o'clock that morning reveille was sounded, as usual, by the blows of a hammer on a length of rail hanging up near the staff quarters. The intermittent sounds barely penetrated the windowpanes on which the frost lay two fingers thick, and they ended almost as soon as they'd begun. It was cold outside, and the campguard was reluctant to go on beating out the reveille for long.

Summary: Shukhov -- the Ivan Denisovich of the title -- was a loyal soldier in the Russian army who was captured by the Germans in 1942. He and a few others managed to escape and get back to Russian lines, but their story about being POWs was not believed, and he was given ten years in labor camps.

The book, as the title says, follows him through one day, from morning to evening. It's a fairly good day for life in a prison camp: he stays out of serious trouble, he doesn't get sick, his squad got one of the better job assignments, by fast thinking he had had a little extra for breakfast and by helping out another prisoner he got something extra for supper, and so forth. Along the way we learn the truths that make up gulag life: A man who is warm does not understand a man who is cold, a zek's worst enemy is often another zek, survival requires looking after those who look after you. One of the most interesting things about the story is how it shows society developing under these artificially restricted and hostile conditions, and the capacity of the human mind to combine both animal cunning and social reason to adapt impressively even to otherwise degrading conditions.

In addition to reading the book, I also watched the 1970 British-Norwegian film of the same name. It stays extremely faithful to the book -- a commenter at IMDB noted that he had never seen a movie that managed to stay so close to the original work, and it is indeed quite close. The language is cleaned up a bit, some description becomes dialogue, and a few things are slimmed down, but the movie captures the book in an extraordinary way. It has one of the most absurdly incongruous trailers I have seen:

That's not really the moral one draws, good as the movie and book are! You can watch the movie online thanks to the Solzhenitsyn Center.

Favorite Passage:

He yawned once more. "Well, don't let it get you down, men," he said. "We'll live through it, even in this power station. Get going, mortar mixers. Don't wait for the whistle."

That's what a squad is. A guard can't get people to budge even in working hours, but a squad leader can tell his men to get on with the job even during the break, and they'll do it. Because he's the one who feeds them. And he'd never make them work for nothing. (p. 73)

Recommendation: This is a genuinely excellent short read -- Highly Recommended. I also recommend the movie, which captures it quite well.

Quotations from Alexander Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Ralph Parker, tr., Signet (New York: 1998).

Friday, October 09, 2015

Not in the Shallows but the Deep

Cardinal Newman
by Christina Rossetti

“In the grave, whither thou goest.”

O weary Champion of the Cross, lie still:
Sleep thou at length the all-embracing sleep:
Long was thy sowing day, rest now and reap:
Thy fast was long, feast now thy spirit’s fill.
Yea, take thy fill of love, because thy will
Chose love not in the shallows but the deep:
Thy tides were springtides, set against the neap
Of calmer souls: thy flood rebuked their rill.
Now night has come to thee—please God, of rest:
So some time must it come to every man;
To first and last, where many last are first.
Now fixed and finished thine eternal plan,
Thy best has done its best, thy worst its worst:
Thy best its best, please God, thy best its best.

Today, of course, was the memorial for Bl. John Henry Newman. From his sermon, "The Religion of the Pharisee, the Religion of Mankind":

The natural conscience of man, if cultivated from within, if enlightened by those external aids which in varying degrees are given him in every place and time, would teach him much of his duty to God and man, and would lead him on, by the guidance both of Providence and grace, into the fulness of religious knowledge; but, generally speaking, he is contented that it should tell him very little, and he makes no efforts to gain any juster views than he has at first, of his relations to the world around him and to his Creator. Thus he apprehends part, and part only, of the moral law; has scarcely any idea at all of sanctity; and, instead of tracing actions to their source, which is the motive, and judging them thereby, he measures them for the most part by their effects and their outward aspect. Such is the way with the multitude of men everywhere and at all times; they do not see the Image of Almighty God before them, and ask themselves what He wishes: if once they did this, they would begin to see how much He requires, and they would earnestly come to Him, both to be pardoned for what they do wrong, and for the power to do better. And, for the same reason that they do not please Him, they succeed in pleasing themselves.

The Cedars, Chanting Vespers to the Sea

by E. Pauline Johnson

Idles the night wind through the dreaming firs,
That waking murmur low,
As some lost melody returning stirs
The love of long ago;
And through the far, cool distance, zephyr fanned,
The moon is sinking into shadow land.

The troubled night-bird, calling plaintively,
Wanders on restless wing;
The cedars, chanting vespers to the sea,
Await its answering,
That comes in wash of waves along the strand,
The while the moon slips into shadow-land,

O! soft responsive voices of the night
I join your minstrelsy,
And call across the fading silver light
As something calls to me;
I may not all your meaning understand,
But I have touched your soul in shadow-land.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Campus Carry

Recent movements in the Texas legislature have made campus carry -- that is, concealed carry permits for buildings on university campuses -- a hotly debated issue here. The current legislation will come into effect in August 2016, and at least one UT professor has a response to it:

Economics professor emeritus Daniel Hamermesh will withdraw from his position next fall, citing concerns with campus carry legislation.

The law will allow the concealed carry of guns in campus buildings beginning Aug. 1, 2016. Hamermesh said he is not comfortable with the risk of having a student shoot at him in class. He teaches a course with 475 students enrolled, according to a letter Hamermesh wrote Sunday to UT President Gregory Fenves.

“With a huge group of students, my perception is that the risk that a disgruntled student might bring a gun into the classroom and start shooting at me has been substantially enhanced by the concealed-carry law,” Hamermesh wrote in the letter.

As some have noted, this is a rather baffling response, since anyone who wanted to shoot a college professor could already just walk in and do so; yes, they would be breaking the law to do it, but if they are actually out to shoot someone that seems hardly likely to be a deterrent. I could see worrying about the possibility of accidents, but disgruntled students are not going to be stopped by policies on paper. In addition, getting the relevant permit requires that one be 21 years old and have undergone training and background checks; it's a bit of a rigmarole to get the permit.

This is, of course, Texas. It has been a perpetual tradition that state legislators can be armed in their office or on the floor of their legislative chamber; and, in fact, anyone who is willing to go through the hassle can get a concealed firearms permit and stroll into the Texas State Capitol with a handgun -- it's actually easier to get through security that way, since by declaring your firearm and showing your permit you can bypass the metal detectors. Very famously it's quite common for lobbyists to get concealed gun permits despite not having any guns, just to make it easier to get in and out. Campus carry, not having the backing of tradition, is more controversial; Texans in general split about evenly on it, although it is very unpopular with students and faculties at universities.

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Mortal Sins

Donald Cozzens has a very muddled article at Commonweal on mortal sins:

As a young priest in the late 1960s and early ’70s, I saw firsthand the moral anguish of married couples wrestling with this teaching. I believe their acute pain was intimately tied to their fear of committing mortal sin. We might have had a very different moral discussion following the birth-control encyclical if the church had not insisted that all forms of artificial birth control were intrinsically evil and therefore mortal sins. Labeling human moral acts and omissions that miss the mark as mortal sin always ups the ante—and threatens the credibility of the church’s teaching authority itself.

The essential distinction between mortal and venial sins, noted by (e.g.) Aquinas, is that wrongdoing is mortal if it is wrong because it is inconsistent with love of God and neighbor, and venial if it is wrong because it guarantees a falling short in love of God and neighbor. Thus the distinction is not a matter of how things are labeled, nor is it applied as a 'motivator'. One of the way Cozzens muddies the waters is by chatting about sins of disobedience -- not eating meat on Fridays, a priest not praying the Divine Office, attending Mass on Sundays -- whose status as mortal sins may change over time. But these change because they are actions that are not in themselves mortal sins at all; it's defiantly refusing to do them when they are required that is the problem. (It's likewise the case, with anything that is a mortal sin considered simply on its own, that circumstances may combine in such a way that it is only venial in a particular case, due to ignorance, confusion, pressure, or any number of other things.)

Since the heart of any genuine Christian morality is charity, the Church has a moral obligation to teach people about the ways in which their actions can be inconsistent with, or impediments to, true charity. This does not magically go away, ever; it does not go away if people stop believing it, it does not go away if people do not listen to it, it does not go away if the Church also explores other ways of approaching ethical matters.

What really gets me about Cozzens's article, though, is this:

Catholic moral tradition, especially in the arena of sexuality, remains married to a calculus of sin. Confessors, at least from the time of the Council of Trent, were trained to distinguish between venial matter and grave matter in hearing confessions. That led in turn to an emphasis on the “act committed” rather than on the penitent’s encounter with the healing mercy of Jesus Christ and his or her overall moral orientation. Pope Francis, in harmony with the work of contemporary theologians like Bernard Häring, Charles Curran, Margaret Farley and others, is showing us how to move beyond the narrow legalisms of act-centered morality.

But it seems that many Catholics have already managed to climb out of the dark hole of an act-centered, sin-focused morality all by themselves. They have not lost a healthy sense of sin, but they don’t think a second glance at their neighbor’s spouse or missing Mass on Sunday separates them from God’s grace. Nor do they believe that doing what is necessary to determine the size of their family is always mortally sinful.

The divorcing of actions from "overall moral orienation" -- an "overall moral orientation" to what, if not practical actions, known by what, if not by actions? -- and of actions from mercy toward people -- the "healing mercy of Jesus Christ" for what, if not the damage we cause ourselves and others by actions? -- is bizarre. The test of "moral orientation" is what we actually do; you can think yourself the most splendid person, and it means nothing unless your actions actually show it; you can have the most moral attitude ever, and it is hypocrisy if you do not make an effort to act appropriately to it. There is a reason why ethics is focused on acts; and there are reasons why theological ethics, in particular, tends to focus on acts. None of these are addressed in Cozzens's fantasy, which manages not actually to touch on any ethical points of substance, whether philosophical or theological. The whole thing is carried out in a void in which all actual ethical work outside a very narrow stream obsessed with avoiding legalisms is ignored.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015


Honest Trailers gives the perfect, and completely accurate, review of Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Wisdom and Play

Here one must consider that the contemplation of Wisdom is suitably compared to play on two counts, each of which is to be found in play. First, because play is delightful and the contemplation of Wisdom possesses maximum delight, whence Ecclesiasticus XXIIII <27> says by the mouth of wisdom: "My spirit is sweet above honey." Second, because things done in play are not ordered to anything else, but are sought for their own sake, and this same trait belongs to the delights of Wisdom. For it happens at times that someone is delighted within by considering what one desires, or proposes to do, but this delight is ordered to something external, which one struggles to attain. If there should be a failure or a delay no small affliction is joined to delight of this sort, in accord with the saying of Ecclesiasticus XXXIII <in fact, Proverbs 14:13>: "Laughter is mixed with sorrow." But the delight of contemplating Wisdom has within itself the cause of delight; hence one suffers no anxiety, as if awaiting something that might be lacking. On this account it is said in Wisdom VIII <16>: "Its conversation" (namely that of wisdom) "has no bitterness, nor does dwelling with it have any tedium." And therefore divine Wisdom compares her delight to play, in Proverbs VIII <30>: "I was delighted every day playing before Him," so that through the different 'days' the consideration of different truths might be understood.

St. Thomas Aquinas, An Exposition of the "On the Hebdomads" of Boethius, Schultz and Synan, trs., The Catholic University of America Press (Washington, D.C.: 2001), p. 5

Monday, October 05, 2015

Four Paths

Now, there are four ways a person may be prompted toward good and drawn away from evil: namely, by the precepts of a most powerful authority, by the teachings of a most wise truth, by the examples and benefits of a most innocent goodness, and finally, by a combination of these three ways. That is why the four kinds of Scriptural books were handed down in both the Old and New Testaments, as they correspond to these four ways. The legal books move people by the precepts of a most potent authority; the historical, by the examples of a most innocent goodness; the sapiential, by the teachings of a most prudent truth; and the prophetic, by a combination of the foregoing, as their content clearly illustrates. Hence these latter are, as it were, a recalling of all legal and doctrinal wisdom.

St. Bonaventure, Breviloquium, Prologue 1.3 [Franciscan Institute Publications (Saint Bonaventure, NY: 2005) p. 7.]

Sunday, October 04, 2015

The Lightning Flashes Diamond Fire

The Voice and the Dusk
by Duncan Campbell Scott

The slender moon and one pale star,
A rose leaf and a silver bee
From some god’s garden blown afar,
Go down the gold deep tranquilly.

Within the south there rolls and grows
A mighty town with tower and spire,
From a cloud bastion masked with rose
The lightning flashes diamond fire.

The purple-martin darts about
The purlieus of the iris fen;
The king-bird rushes up and out,
He screams and whirls and screams again.

A thrush is hidden in a maze
Of cedar buds and tamarac bloom,
He throws his rapid flexile phrase,
A flash of emeralds in the gloom.

A voice is singing from the hill
A happy love of long ago;
Ah! tender voice, be still, be still,
‘’Tis sometimes better not to know.’

The rapture from the amber height
Floats tremblingly along the plain,
Where in the reeds with fairy light
The lingering fireflies gleam again.

Buried in dingles more remote,
Or drifted from some ferny rise,
The swooning of the golden throat
Drops in the mellow dusk and dies.

A soft wind passes lightly drawn.
A wave leaps silverly and stirs
The rustling sedge, and then is gone
Down the black cavern in the firs.