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If you ever find yourself reading Laurie Keller’s Scrambled States of America to your children, try rendering the narrator’s part in the voice of Hal Holbrook with just a dash of Frank Morgon thrown in. I don’t know what results you’ll get, but my younger gels love this treatment so much that they actually request it.

UPDATE: By the bye, the eldest gel and I are no great way off from meeting the Rohirrim for the first time and I’m trying to figure out a way to distinguish them from the Men of Gondor. Would I be consigning myself to eternal flame if I went with a kind of modified Scandinavian-Teutonic accent? I mean, if I’m already doing Sean Connery as Gimli, is there anything to stop me from doing Der Ahnold as Eomer?

Yes, I know what you’re thinking: “Peace ist vat ve vant und do have/Und a piece of anything dat you have!”

(Spot the quote.)

Grand Odalisque (Ingres) image

(This is how it’s done.)

Mr. FLG of Fear and Loathing in Georgetown announces the formation of Heretic Boys for Art, an organization open to membership to all those who appreciate fine culchah but do so from the wrong bank of the Tiber.  Says he of the obvious question of how the RCBfA might react to HBfA,

“All members must recognize the risks they are taking in joining HBfA, namely the possibility of being burnt at the stake in effigy by members of RCBfA. However, I hope that RCBfA and HBfA can have a symbiotic relationship despite our differences.

Emphasis mine.  Our Faith differences can be got round in the pursuit of symbiosis?  This suggests to me that Mr. FLG is probably a Palie.

While Maxy appears to be open to the idea of another voice in the marketplace,  I expect that the question of whether to poke Mr. FLG with the soft cushions probably will have to be taken up in special committee and then voted by the general membership.  We will send Cardinal Fang around with the decision once it’s been taken.

What with all of the other weighty concerns filling our world with doubt and uncertainty, it grieves me that I find myself faced this week with yet another terrible issue, the search for a resolution of which is already causing me sleepless nights and loss of weight. I appeal to my readers for their thoughts on the matter.

You see, although I generally read two or three books at at time in the evening, for my metro commute I restrict myself to completing a single volume. For one thing, I only have a window of twenty-five to thirty minutes each way, and experience has taught that reading multiple books within that time-frame results in too slow and diffuse a perusal of any one of them. Plus there is the physical disadvantage of hauling about the extra weight.

Well, last Friday afternoon I finally completed William Hague’s biography of Billy Pitt. Thus, yesterday morning found me debating about what to read next. Something old? Something new? Something fictitious? Something historickal? Something humourous? Something tragickal? Well, at last, reckoning that it was time to give history a bit of a rest, I settled on an old favorite: Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop.

By the end of the day, I was well on my way through “The Stitch Service” for the umpteenth time and enjoying it thoroughly.

However, waiting for me at home last evening was a brand-new book recommended to me by Sir Basil, namely John Biggins’ A Sailor of Austria: In Which, Without Really Intending To, Otto Prohaska Becomes Official War Hero No. 27 of the Habsburg Empire.

Greedily, I ripped open the package and read the introductory chapter as I put together some din-dins (Mrs. R having gone out with the eldest gel for some Mommy/Daughter time).

Now my evening reading schedule is already pretty crowded and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Attempting to horn Mr. Biggins ‘novel into the rotation at this point simply will not do. So the alternative is to start bringing it along on the metro.

Here’s the dilemma, then: As I say, I’m already well away with Scoop and I would feel quite guilty abandoning it. On the other hand, I really want to get into Sailor of Austria as soon as possible. If I decide to do so, it will probably take me a week or so to finish up Scoop and frankly I’m not sure I want to wait that long.

What to do? What to do?

This is pretty impressive: Owner Saves Dog From Shark’s Jaws

Greg LeNoir watched in horror as the shark’s mouth opened wide, chomping a large set of teeth on his beloved 14-pound dog, Jake.

Noooooo,” LeNoir shrieked, fearing the worst.

But the case of the rat terrier vs. the shark has a happy ending.

”Jake’s doing great,” LeNoir’s brother, Phillip, said Monday. “And I still can’t believe my brother jumped in the water and punched a shark.”

The saga began Friday afternoon when Greg LeNoir took Jake to the Worldwide Sportsman’s Bayside Marina pier in Islamorada for the dog’s daily swim. LeNoir said Jake is a fast and fearless swimmer, often retrieving jellyfish and soaked coconuts.

But this time, Jake, a 28-month-old dog adopted from an animal shelter, unexpectedly encountered the shark, which was about five feet long. As Jake disappeared under the water, LeNoir conquered his own fear and sprang to action.

”I clenched my fists and dove straight in with all my strength, like a battering ram,” LeNoir, 53, said Sunday, reliving the frightening ordeal. “I hit the back of the shark’s neck. It was like hitting concrete.”

You certainly wouldn’t do something like this for a cat.  Why? Because you know that if the situation were reversed, the dog would jump in to try and save you while the cat would just sit on the dock and sneer.

As I left the house today, I had this parting conversation with the ten year old who, like her father, is not what one would call a “morning” person:

Self: Have a good day, sweetie.

Herself (frowning): Grumble, grumble, grumble.

Self: Oh, all right, have a perfectly bloody day. See if I care.

Herself (smiling): Heh.

You just have to know how to talk to them.

It’s funny that while the ten year old is typically a grump in the morning, her eight year old sister is almost offensively bright and cheery. The six year old, usually the maniac of the crew, is the one closest to the happy medium at the beginning of the day.

Whether it is because we are entereing the End Time – I cannot recollect off hand if they were one of the plagues of Egypt or appear in Revelations anywhere – or else whether it is just one of those things, I dunno. But the fact of the matter remains that this year we seem to be suffering from an unusually large infestation of stink bugs at the family manor.

This certainly has its disadvantages, as a quick dekko at the attendant photo makes fairly self-evident. Yech. On the other hand, I can report that there is a certain grim satisfaction in knocking these little bastards on the head with a tack-hammer that almost – almost, I say – makes up for having to deal with their presence to begin with.

Peej O’Rourke, on the discovery that he has a very silly and embarrassing form of cancer, has some interesting things to say about Life, the Universe and Everything:

I consider evolution to be more than a scientific theory. I think it’s a call to God. God created a free universe. He could have created any kind of universe he wanted. But a universe without freedom would have been static and meaningless — the taxpayer-funded-art-in-public-places universe.

Rather, God created a universe full of cosmic whatchmajiggers and subatomic whosits free to interact. And interact they did, becoming matter and organic matter and organic matter that replicated itself and life. And that life was completely free, as amoral as my cancer cells.

Life forms could exercise freedom to an idiotic extent, growing uncontrolled, thoughtless and greedy to the point that they killed the source of their own fool existence. But, with the help of death, matter began to learn right from wrong — how to save itself and its ilk, how to nurture, how to love (or, anyway, how to build a Facebook page) and how to know God and his rules.

Death is so important that God visited death upon his own son, thereby helping us learn right from wrong well enough that we may escape death forever and live eternally in God’s grace. (Although this option is not usually open to reporters.)

I’m not promising that the pope will back me up about all of the above. But it’s the best I can do by my poor lights about the subject of mortality and free will.

Thus, the next time I glimpse death … well, I’m not going over and introducing myself. I’m not giving the grim reaper fist daps. But I’ll remind myself to try, at least, to thank God for death. And then I’ll thank God, with all my heart, for whiskey.

I’ve noticed an increase in spiritual themes in O’Rourke’s recent writing. Mememto mori, I suppose. This is a good thing on at least two levels. First, of course, is that I believe his faith to be genuine and, so it would appear, growing. Second, this may represent a new voice, one that I think O’Rourke has been straining to find for quite some time. His earlier satirical essays on politics and culchah from the 80’s and 90’s were positively brilliant in their cigar-chomping, whiskey-guzzling worldly cynicism, but I’ve always felt that he peaked with All The Trouble In The World (published 13 years ago, if you can believe that), and has been fading since then. If he can channel his quick eye and natural Irish humor in the direction he appears to be going, I’d like to think that he can reemerge as a top-rank essayist.

Via Arts & Letters Daily.

Today is the anniversary of the birth, in 1571, of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.

I made up my mind to only post one sample of his work and finally settled on what I think is my favorite, The Taking of Christ (1602).  No doubt Mrs. P can say something erudite and scholarly on the subject, but I just love the use of light and shadow in this work and perhaps more importantly, the movement: Christ is caught almost literally in a torrent that flows from right to left.  I’ve always loved that.

Oh, what the heck! Here’s another favorite of mine:

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (1602)

Powerful.  Powerful.

Today in Mass we were treated to the musick of another 18th Century Italian of whom I had never heard, Giovanni Battista Casali (1715-1792).  (Yes, in part I post about these musickal matters just to tweek those of you doomed to electric guitars, drum sets at the alter and kumbaya. I’m terribly sorry, but I just cannot resist the neener, neener impulse.)

Anyhoo, Casali interested me because I could not, to save my life, have placed his musick:  It carried in it not only elements of the Baroque, but also strains of the Renaissance and also hints of the Rococco and beyond.  Small wonder, I suppose, in a man who was born two years after Bach began his professional career and died a year after Mozart. 

The Catholic Encyclopedia has this to say about Casali:

Musician, b. at Rome in 1715; d. there 1792. From 1759 until his death he held the position of choir-master in the church of St. John Lateran. Of his numerous compositions a mass in G major and several motets (Confitebor tibi, Ave Maria, Exaltabo, Improperium) have been reprinted in Lueck’s “Collection” (Ratisbon, 1859). These compositions, while liturgical in spirit and form, show a considerable departure from the great period of the Roman School in a freer use of the dissonance, and they also bear witness to the influence of the opera in which form Casali also wrote. Most of his works are preserved in the library of Abbate Santini in Rome. Casali was one of the last of that period to write for voices a capella.

I note in this entry a certain amount of damning with faint praise.

Anyhoo, it was pleasant and moving.  Aaaaand, for those of you not fans of Casali, the Offeratory Motet was by Palestrina, which ought to make up in and of itself for any perceived shortcomings of the rest of the liturgical musick.  This is true especially because of the fact that the Offeratory I had heard earlier in the day at Robbo’s Former Episcopal Church was by John Rutter.  Now I am sure that Mr. Rutter is a very nice man and that he means well, but the fact of the matter is that his musick is so fubsy, so treacly, so mushy and so Hallmark Card As Written By Cathy Guisewite, that it gives me what Mr. John Keats would have called the guts-ache.

Incidentally, regular readers may recall that last Sunday afternoon I managed to skin my knees pretty badly at the eldest gel’s softball practice.  Well, this morning it was pure agony to kneel not for one, but for two separate services, self having attended the family’s Episcopal service and then my own High Mass. The agony was increased by the fact that the alter at my Catholic parish is made of marble.  By the time that I was done, blood was beginning to seap through the knees of my grey flannels.

I have often meditated on the hardships of keeping up dual worships, but I never imagined they could be so out-right physical in nature.

Belisarius by Jacques-Louis David, 1781

Now here is probably the first thing that has genuinely surprised me during my perusal through Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:  Those who have studied the history of the Eastern Roman Empire at all will, of course, recognize the name of the Emperor Justinian, who reigned in the mid-6th Century at Constantinople.  During the reign of Justinian, a concerted attempt was made by the Romans to regain the territory of the Western Roman Empire, finally lost with the fall of Rome in 476 A.D., from the various hordes of barbarians that spread out across western Europe and Africa.  This attempt was undertaken primarily by the great General Belisarius.  He regained Africa from the Vandals and then liberated Italy from the Ostrogoths, later serving the Empire by thrashing a Persian invasion under Chosroes and driving off a Bulgarian horde that threatened Constantinople itself with a scratch army of peasants, slaves and a few hearty veterans.  Belisarius was uniformly praised not only for his prowess in battle, but also for his nobility of character, rectitude in serving his Emperor and his total disinterest in trying to usurp the Crown himself, even though not only Justinian’s subjects, but many foreign powers would have flocked to his banner.

Anyway, the story (represented in David’s painting above) is that despite – or perhaps because of – Belisarius’ nobility, Justinian was consumed both with jealousy and fear and, after Belisarius’ last victory, had him arrested, tried and convicted of treason.  Belisarius’ estates were confiscated and his eyes were put out, leaving him a blind beggar in the streets after all his former glory.  This has long been a favorite exemplar of  the Wheel of Fortune.

Except that Gibbon says it’s nonsense.  He writes:  “That [Belisarius] was deprived of his eyes, and reduced by envy to beg his bread, ‘Give a penny to Belisarius the general!’ is a fiction of later times, which has obtained credit, or rather favor, as a strange example of the vicissitudes of fortune.”

He goes on the expand on this in a footnote:  “The source of this fable may be derived from a miscellaneous work of the twelfth century, the Chiliads of John Tzetzes, a monk.  He relates the blindness and beggary of Belisarius in ten vulgar or political verses.  This moral or romantic tale was imported into Italy with the language and manuscripts of Greece; repeated before the end of the fifteenth century by Crinitus, Pontanus, and Volanterranus; attacked by Alciat, for the honour of the law; and defended by Baronius for the honour of the church.  Yet Tzetzes himself had read in other chronicles that Belisarius did not lose his sight, and that he recovered his fame and fortunes.”

This surprised me, as I say, because the story of the blinding of Belisarius is quite well-known and Gibbon’s is the first outright refutation of it I’ve ever seen.  Granted, I’ve never studied the question all that carefully, relying for my primary knowledge of the period on Robert Graves’ fictional account, Count Belisarius.  On stumbling across this passage in Gibbon, I immidiately went and looked out my copy of The Secret History by Procopius.  Procopius was a slave and secretary to Belisarius on his many campaigns.  He published much historickal description of life in the Court of Justinian.  At least in The Secret History, Procopius says nothing about blinding, but spits venom at Belisarius over the tangles of his personal life (which were quite complicated indeed) and dismisses him as a hopeless fool.  (FWIW, Graves sets up his novel as a kind of double-secret version of Procopius’ history: In it, Belisarius- the noblest of characters- is, indeed, blinded, and both Justinian and his Empress Theodora are little better than devil-possessed maniacs).

What’s the truth of the matter? I dunno.  It would make a very interesting topic of study.  However, Gibbon’s little dig about the “honor of the church” suggests to me at least one source of his own bias on the subject. (Being a the equivalent of a limousine-liberal in his day, Gibbon hated Catholicism and was little more than luke-warm to Anglicanism.)

Just in case you are interested, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem about Belisarius that incorporated the myth, hook, line and (if I may say so) sinker:

I am poor and old and blind;
The sun burns me, and the wind
Blows through the city gate
And covers me with dust
From the wheels of the august
Justinian the Great.

It was for him I chased
The Persians o’er wild and waste,
As General of the East;
Night after night I lay
In their camps of yesterday;
Their forage was my feast.

For him, with sails of red,
And torches at mast-head,
Piloting the great fleet,
I swept the Afric coasts
And scattered the Vandal hosts,
Like dust in a windy street.

For him I won again
The Ausonian realm and reign,
Rome and Parthenope;
And all the land was mine
From the summits of Apennine
To the shores of either sea.

For him, in my feeble age,
I dared the battle’s rage,
To save Byzantium’s state,
When the tents of Zabergan,
Like snow-drifts overran
The road to the Golden Gate.

And for this, for this, behold!
Infirm and blind and old,
With gray, uncovered head,
Beneath the very arch
Of my triumphal march,
I stand and beg my bread!

Methinks I still can hear,
Sounding distinct and near,
The Vandal monarch’s cry,
As, captive and disgraced,
With majestic step he paced,–
“All, all is Vanity!”

Ah! vainest of all things
Is the gratitude of kings;
The plaudits of the crowd
Are but the clatter of feet
At midnight in the street,
Hollow and restless and loud.

But the bitterest disgrace
Is to see forever the face
Of the Monk of Ephesus!
The unconquerable will
This, too, can bear;–I still
Am Belisarius!


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September 2008