Sunday, March 31, 2013

These Things Don't Always Work Out In Real Life (Dream Log)

I had a long and involved dream last night about how I was going to write a brilliant post here combining the themes of Catholic prohibitions of reading the Vulgate, the genocide of the Albigensians, and the plot of X-Men: First Class,but as so often happens in such cases, die Zusammenhänge sind mir beim Wachen nicht mehr ganz glasklar.

The dream about today's brilliant blog post which was alas not to be gradually morphed into a dream where I was a plainclothes officer on the LAPD in the 50's or maybe the early 60's. I thought to myself, this is kinda like LA Confidential.Which was a little bit strange, because I don't even particularly like LA Confidential. I may have actually seen the whole thing from start to finish by now, but not in one sitting. Not in two sittings either, or three. If there's been an LA retro-noir made since Chinatown,other than The Two Jakes,which is half as good as The Two Jakes, let alone Chinatown, well, I missed it.

In my capacity as an LAPD plainclothes cop from a half-century ago, I was investigating a robbery at a drugstore with a long Formica counter where they served sodas and pie. An employee had already been arrested for the robbery, which had occurred in the middle of the night when the place was closed, but I was still investigating because I was sure the kid was bein' framed, and that this particular drugstore was secretly selling a lot more than sodas and chewing gum. If you catch my drift. Yeah. I was like that. A pain in the ass to the higher-ups, because I cared. Maybe some poor schmuck was gonna take the heat this time, but only if I failed.

Unfortunately for the poor schmuck who worked at the drugstore, I got distracted by a dame. Yeah, I'm like that: I like dames. You know the score. And this one had big eyes that made me shiver like a helpless wet little kitten. You heard me.

She kinda looked like Lauren Ambrose. Attentive readers of this blog may recall that not long ago I had another dream about a woman who kinda looked like Lauren Ambrose. I think maybe my unconscious is trying to tell me that I think Lauren Ambrose is cute.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Postscript to "Was Reading Or Owning The Vulgate Ever Forbidden To Anyone By The Catholic Church?"

I was wrong: the 14th canon of the Council of Toulouse in 1229 did in fact prohibit laypersons from owning the Bible, including the Vulgate version -- with the exception of psalters, and breviaries and the Hours of the Blessed Mary, which contain passages from the Bible. But translations of any of those works were most strictly prohibited. "Prohibimus etiam, ne libros veteris testamenti, aut novi, lieci permittantur habere: nisi forte psalterium, vel breviarum pro divinis officiis, aut horas beatae Mariae, aliquis ex devotione habere velit. Sed ne praemissos libros habeant in vulgari translatos, arctissime inhibimus." That's the 14th canon as recorded in this collection of proceedings of Church councils.

The proceedings of the Council of Tarragona of 1242 are in that same volume. I haven't found the part about no one being allowed to possess any part of the Old or New Testament, and if they do they must turn them over to their local bishop in order that they might be burned, but I'll keep looking.

Now, back to Toulouse in 1229: yes, I was wrong. Restrictions were put upon owning some parts of the Bible, even, apparently, in the Vulgate version, although special emphasis was laid upon the prohibition of translations of it. And I don't mean to minimize the awfulness of this prohibition in any way. Still, I find it very strange that so many people -- or at least, so many websites. I shouldn't be overly hasty to draw parallels between Google hits and the population at large -- vehemently condemn this prohibition against owning Bibles, without even mentioning the context in which it occurred, which was a genocide of the Languedoc people by the armies of the Pope and the King of France and the Inquisition, in which the stamping out of heresy meshed very nicely with the King's desire to bring under his direct control a region which had been semi-autonomous until then. Some people might think that the phrase "Kill 'em all, God'll sort 'em out" originated with crusty US Marines in Vietnam; more likely, it was the reply of a French general to one of his subordinate officers during the Albigensian crusade, when the general gave an order to march into a town and kill all of the Albigensians in it, and the officer asked how they were supposed to tell the Albigensians apart from the good Catholics.

Tarragona is a drive of a little over 4 hours from Toulouse today, according to Google Maps. Maybe both councils were primarily concerned with Albigensians. The section on Tarragona in that collection of proceedings of councils isn't nearly as clearly laid-out as the section on Toulouse, and, I won't lie to you, my Latin isn't great. But I'll keep at this. I have a feeling that a re-read of the chapter on the Cathars (the Albigensians) in my main man Steven Runciman's book The Medieval Manichee: A Study of the Christian Dualist Heresymay help point me in the right direction in trying to find out just what books were banned to whom by whom when and for how long and so forth. and even if it doesn't help at all, Runciman's books are made from pure awesome and it never hurts to re-read one of them. The question: What made me interested in the Middle Ages? can be answered in one word: Runciman.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Was Reading Or Owning The Vulgate Ever Forbidden To Anyone By The Catholic Church?

I kinda doubt it, with the possible exception of one regional ban in southern France in the early 13th century, lasting a few years. Possible, but in my opinion even that is unlikely. I'll discuss that possibility below.

Yes, many people, even some very bright people, will tell you that for centuries, throughout Western Europe, the Catholic Church forbade lay people, non-clergy, to read any version of the Bible, including that revered standard Catholic Latin translation, the Vulgate. But sometimes it happens that many people, including very bright ones, are all wrong about something.

First off, no one disputes that the Catholic Church has at times discouraged, forbidden, condemned, and persecuted, tortured and killed writers, readers and possessors of copies of, translations of the Bible into vernacular tongues, after Latin had ceased to be the native tongue of almost anyone outside of the Church or academia. (And for a long time in Catholic Europe, the Church and academia were very close to the same thing.) And unlike a Catholic apologist, I will not offer you any justification for anyone's ever having banned or destroyed any book. All I'm interested in here is the claim about access to the Vulgate having been restricted.

That claim just doesn't make sense to me. For one thing, large portions of every Catholic Mass until the 1960's were taken -- that's right: straight outta the Vulgate. And during the Middle Ages, when these prohibitions of the laity reading the Vulgate were supposedly taking place, that same laity was encouraged, and often enough forced, to attend those Masses on a regular basis. It was essential that they hear the words of the Vulgate, and forbidden that they read those same words? Really?

A less serious objection to the claim that laity couldn't own the Vulgate is the existence of books of scripture, some time just one or several of the 66 books of the Bible in a small volume, occasionally the whole Vulgate in a huge volume, which were owned by lay members of Medieval royalty and lesser aristocracy, and which still exist today because they are particularly ornate and beautiful. I refer to this as a less serious objection because royalty and other aristocracy could ignore prohibitions much more easily than peasants could. Still, it is an objection. All the more so when we consider that is was the more pious lay members of the upper classes who would tend to own such volumes, and the more pious ones would naturally also be more likely to observe prohibitions laid down by the Church.

Claims that the Vulgate was forbidden to lay people seem to come down remarkably often to references to the Council of Toulouse in 1229 and the Council of Tarragona in 1234. One fact somewhat damaging to these claims is that there was no Council in Tarragona in 1234. Google "council of tarragona in 1234" in quotation marks and see how often that exact phrase is repeated, and notice how often the phrase is repeated by somewhat unhinged anti-Catholic Protestants. Note the many references to "the apostate Church." Okay, okay there was a council in Tarragona in 1242, they only missed by eight years. Still, it makes you wonder about the accuracy of the translation of the canon from Tarragona which supposedly bans the Bible. I haven't yet found and examined the original Latin text of the canons of the Councils of Toulouse and Tarragona, but the translations on those somewhat unhinged websites look to me as if it is quite possible that only translation from the Vulgate to the vernacular are being banned. I don't think it's particularly adventurous of me to assume that in early 14th century Toulouse and Tarragona, no one was translating the original Hebrew and Greek into French or Spanish. but if they were, that, too, would have been forbidden by these Councils. As I said above, I don't condone any banning of any books. I'm not going to try to convince you that the banning of bible translations ever has been a reasonable thing. There are plenty of Catholic apologists who will be glad to try to convince you of that. I'm strictly, obsessively, autistically concerned here with the claim that Vulgate was banned to laypeople.

And now to the possible temporary regional ban which I mentioned at the top of this post. It must also be emphasized that these two Councils, at Toulouse in 1229 and Tarragona in 1242, NOT 1234, were regional Councils, not Oecumenical Councils. Their rulings, their canons, had effect only locally, not throughout Catholic Christendom. And in Toulouse in 1229, the local authorities were busy wiping out the Albigensians, one of those early Protestant denominations who are not usually referred to as Protestants, but as heretics, because they did not survive. It's conceivable that the Albigensians, like later Protestants, wished to read the Bible in the vernacular, and that the authorities, in a local provision of martial law, forbade the local Albigensian clergy, who naturally had been excommunicated and therefore were laypeople in the eyes of the Catholics, from possessing copies of the Vulgate, for fear that they would make such translations.

But given the quality of the sources I've seen thus far who are making such claims -- well actually, they're claiming much more than that, based on their dubious readings of what might possibly be accurate translations of a canon from that local Council in Tououlse -- I'm skeptical even of a local temporary ban of the Vulgate in this case. I'll see if I can find some of the primary documents, and get back to you. (And for me, "primary" always means "untranslated.")

Postscript: I was wrong, owning some portions of the Vulgate was forbidden to laypeople at least at Toulouse, if not also at other councils. But even worse things were happening at Toulouse.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Socialist Realism vs Sitcoms

Much has been made (in the US at least) of that strange Soviet-era artistic genre, Socialist Realism: paintings, sculptures, posters, films, novels and other art forms produced in a manner pleasing to the regime, purporting to portray daily life in the Socialist bloc realistically and, anyone could see, not doing so:

Only recently have similarities between Socialist Realism in the Soviet bloc and broadcast television in the US occurred to me. Why only recently, I wonder. The parallels are many, deep and obvious, especially when one considers the quintessential product of American TV, the sitcom. Like Socialist Realism, it panders to the regime, willingly submitting to ridiculous levels of governmental censorship, and purports to convey everyday reality, and conveys a patently artificial, government-approved dream-world instead. Even the allowed speech is artificial. Artificial obscene words are invented to replace the real ones.

And there is that American pinnacle of artificiality, the laugh track. Viewers can't even be trusted to decide for themselves what is and isn't funny, they must be prompted when it is appropriate to laugh. Thankfully, the laugh track is finally fading away, not appearing in all sitcoms anymore. (Because the Cold War is over?)

Much has also been made (in the US at least) with the troubles had in Communist countries by artists who eschewed the easier success promised by Socialist Realism and produced art which was more serious. As if serious, non-pandering artists have tended to have it easy in capitalist countries!

In his novel Jud Süß,based on the true story of an 18th-century Jewish financier who rose for a while to a position of great power as an adviser to the Duke of Württemberg, only to fall victim to an antisemitic campaign and be executed, Lion Feuchtwanger points out some of the similarities between Germans and Jews. He suggests that perhaps great similarity is a necessary pre-condition for great enmity. The German Duke has nightmares in which he and his Jewish adviser and another Jew hold hands and unwillingly execute a stiff and grotesque dance, inexorably bound together. The financier comes to believe, maybe it's true, maybe not, that his real father was a German nobleman. I wonder whether the US and Russia could ever have been such great enemies if they were not similar in many ways. Those parallels between Socialist Realism and the sitcom, that's just one small example, one symptom, of profound similarities between two huge, relatively new, often crude, extremely powerful nations, similarities which might be much more obvious to most people in Western Europe or Latin America than to most Americans or Russians.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Is This a New Chess Variant?

I've had this in mind for a long time but I've never played it, never seen it played nor heard it described by anyone else:

Each player has the conventional 16 pieces, which move in the conventional ways. The game is played on a board of 100 squares, 10x10, a to j and 1 to 10. White's pieces begin on b2 through b9 and his pawns on c2 through c9, Black's pieces start on i2 through i9 and his pawns on h2 through h9. In other words, at the beginning of the game there is an open file on either side of the pieces and an open rank behind the pieces. White's pawns promote on 10 and black's promote on 1, White may capture en passant from 5 to 6 and Black from 6 to 5.

Has anyone played this or heard of it? Would anyone be interested in playing it? Does anyone know of a virtual space where this could easily be set up and played? (Even for a non-IT-geek such as myself?) Does anyone know where I could get a 10x10 board which would fit standard tournament-size pieces?

It seems to me that a potential weakness of this variant would be that White moving 1.Rook a1 or 1.Rook j1 would be so powerful a move that the advantage would be impossible to overcome between players of comparable skill with more than a passing familiarity with the variant. But I can't be sure without actually playing, I'm simply not a good enough chess player to work that out in my head.

Sincere thanks in advance for any comments.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Advertising -- Why Do We Assume It Works?

Some ads seem to be made to make the viewer not think about the product ostensibly being advertised. Often one doesn't know what's being advertised know until the final instant of a TV commercial. Could be Nike, could be Gatorade, could be the US Army, could be GAP clothing, could be a motor vehicle, could be software, could be a product completely unrelated to any of those. There's 20 to 60 seconds of stylish visuals, and then the logo is shown at the end.

Then there's GEICO. GEICO advertising seems to represent a completely separate category of weird behavior. They're like the ads mentioned above only when it's the first commercial featuring a new character or characters. After that, I know as soon as I see the gecko or the pig, or some other trademark character, that I'm watching a GEICO commercial -- and, full disclosure, I tend to like GEICO commercials. I like some of them very much -- but I couldn't honestly say that I associate them with insurance. Supposedly there's a lot of advanced psychological science bending our subconscious minds here. Really? Or has GEICO just been hosting a particularly interesting live-action short film festival stretched out over decades? I don't think these commercials are really igniting a subconscious passion for GEICO deep within me. I think I'm really just thinking how cute the gecko or the piglet is -- I really love the piglet! -- and whether the guy who does the voice for the gecko is the same guy who used to be one of the hosts of "Globe Trekker" on PBS, and things like that. I believe that I am still in control over my own financial decisions despite the fact that GEICO's commercials entertain me so much.

Going further, I think that the Allstate commercials with the character who embodies mayhem are significantly less effective, in terms of marketing, than no commercials at all would have been. The mayhem guy reminds me of a mafioso coming into my home and saying, "Gee, it'd be a shame if this place got busted up, so you should pay us $500 a month." These commercials make me not want to associate with Allstate.

Monday, March 25, 2013


"We've been probing and probing and probing, and so far we haven't been able to find anything anywhere near Congresswoman Bachmann which remotely resembles ethics. As a possible next step, we're considering trying to determine whether the Congresswoman can spell the word 'ethics.' Some Monday-morning quarterbacks have been suggesting that that's where we should've started, pointing out, for example, that she seems sincere when she says that she believes her husband is heterosexual. I'm not saying that Monday-morning quarterbacks are always wrong."

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Yr Doin It Wrong

[PS, 22. July 2016: The song is now restored to its original version, the way it was originally posted 3 years ago, the way it appeared on the blog for several minutes or hours, before I said to myself that my Mom might read it. Well, my Mom is dead now and I am no longer able to upset her with things I've written. In this, the original version, the restored version, 1 word is changed, 1 word which rhymes with "song" and occurs twice in the song, which I had replaced with "song" in the edited version. It makes a lot more sense the original way. I mean, occasionally complete strangers will come up to a songwriter and ask, "Who said you could do that with yr song?!" but more often they're upset about something else which isn't any of their business.]

(Vivace a la Primus)

Yr doin it wrong
Yr doin it wrong
That's what she told me
All night long

She said Who told you
To do that with yr dong?!
Yr doin it wrong!
Yr doin it wrong!

She told me to go ask
John Shelby Spong
He said yr doin it wrong!
Yr doin it wrong!

That's what he told me
All night long
He said Who told you
To do that with yr dong?!

Yr doin it wrong!
Yr doin it wrong!
So they all tell me
All night long

They scream hibbity blibbity
Hee hoo hong!
Yr doin it wrong!
Yr doing it wrong!

They gather in my front lawn
In great big throngs
N yell Yr doin it wrong!
Yr doin it wrong!

They claim they'll send me off
To Hong Kong
Fr doin it wrong!
Fr doin it wrong!

They blame me fr their relapse
On the bong
Because I'm doin it wrong
Because I'm doin it wrong

I am the Monkey
Which is Wrong
Of course I'm doin it wrong!
Of course I'm doing it wrong!

Saturday, March 23, 2013

There Is A Grave Crisis In New Testament Studies

This is a fine collection of links to information about the New Testament. It may not be the best one there is, but it's the best I know of. It gives you access to a lot of first-rate scholarship.

However, if you surf over there and begin to look around, it may disturb you that the scholars linked there seldom if ever mention that anyone has ever doubted that Jesus existed.

Let me repeat that: it's not just that they all are convinced that Jesus existed: they seem unwilling to acknowledge that anyone has ever doubted it. This is more than a minor problem; it's downright neurotic. And the few exceptions, when mainline New Testament scholars do address the question, they do so neurotically. Well, they do not actually address the question so much as beg it, and they usually seem to verbally abuse anyone who asks it. There have been plenty of books published on the subject, but very very few written by people with tenure in one of the relevant fields. One of these few books, of course, is Bart Ehrman's misleadingly-titled Did Jesus Exist?which is just out in paperback. A title much more indicative of its contents would have been Jesus Definitely Existed And Anyone Who Doubts It Is A Big Poopy-Haid If Not Downright Insane.

I know that I keep harping about the question of the historical Jesus in this blog, and complaining about the way that academics duck the question. But that is only half of the crisis I'm alluding to. The other half is that many, many other people are also disappointed in these scholars' response, and/or lack of response, to this question, and many of them have concluded that these scholars are not to be trusted about anything.

Which is incorrect. When it comes to just about any topic having to do with Christianity from around AD 50 to the present, the academics are the go-to guys and gals. But large numbers of people, large and quickly-growing, I am afraid, are being turned off by the scholars' poor performance, and/or refusal to perform at all, on that one question: did Jesus exist?

They behave completely differently, these very same professors, when you ask about other people. They'll tell you that the stories of Abraham are legends and that there's no more reason to think of him as real as there would be with Zeus. With few exceptions, they'll tell you much the same about Moses. Most of them believe there was a David, but they'll be perfectly glad to tell you why, and they won't imply that you're a simpleton or a lunatic for asking. Totally different deal with Jesus.

And so non-scholars are turning to other non-scholars for answers. And what they're getting from the non-scholars is at best a summary of some of the finest scholarship of the 19th century, and usually they're getting books much worse than that best. People who would never think of shunning the academic community when it comes to climatology, or evolution, or extra-terrestrial life, are shunning Biblical scholars, not just when it comes to whether or not Jesus existed, where it's perfectly reasonable to shun them, but also on the history, not just of Christianity, but also of Judaism, and to a large extent, ancient history in general.

Even professors in some of those other fields, even world-class professors like Dawkins, are getting a Bizarro-World, History-Channel-worthy education in ancient history. Believe me, general public: you need to overlook the one question about Jesus and realize that otherwise, these people actually are the experts. I stand by my opinion of Ehrman's Did Jesus Exist? but his books which contain footnotes are the good stuff. As is the stuff referred to in those footnotes. I'm talking about Epp and Speyer and Rice and Holmes and Koester and Pagels and co. I'm talking about peer-reviewed stuff by people highly fluent in the relevant ancient languages and highly-skilled in the relevant methods. It's a weird situation. The historical-Jesus question is a huge elephant standing and pooping in their faculty lounge and they're just not dealing with it, and that's very bad -- but otherwise they perfectly resemble competent scholars.

Friday, March 22, 2013

A Bold Idea, Certainly, But Please Don't Dismiss It Right Away

I was just thinking about mental competency hearings. We all know the legal formulation: "a danger to him- or herself and others." If a person is judged to be such a danger, the state intervenes, and for everyone's safety, that person is confined to a facility which attempts to improve their mental health. A locked facility, with the person's ability to interact with the outside world severely curtailed, as a common-sense precaution.

Well? Aren't the leaders and major stockholders of petrochemical companies a clear and present danger to us all? Although we're often tempted to see them as criminals, why not consider treating them as insane instead, and taking appropriate action?

It would beat standing around and waiting for the Earth to burn to a crisp, imho.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

"I Can't Say Publicly That I'm An Atheist, Because I Live And Work In The South"

Yes, I've actually come across that one a few times. Perhaps this surprises you because you, like me, have lived and worked in the South and didn't hide your atheism at all and didn't even realize how brave you were being.

But I can understand the atheist closet. Sure I can. After all, Rosa Parks said, "I sure am tired after cleaning wife folks' houses all day long, and there are some empty seats up there in the front of the bus -- but since I live and work in the South, I'd better keep standing up here in the back and not rock the boat."

No, wait -- that's not what she said at all, is it? And Martin Luther King Jr didn't say -- to himself -- "I have a dream -- but because I live and work in the South, it would be better if I didn't raise a fuss about it." And the guys in the B-52's didn't decide to tone down the gay, to be on the safe side, because they lived and worked in the South. And if you haven't heard about it already, check out the paint job the Westboro Baptist Church's newest neighbors gave to their house. (God hates fags? Well, people hate bigotry. And people are real.)

Now, I know, some of you may be saying, "Hey, Steve, your comparisons are skewed, because ethnic minorities and gays are at much more risk for all kinds of discrimination than atheists -- even here in the South, where I live and work and loudly make fun of believers on a daily basis!" And of course you'd be right to say so, which makes these closeted atheists even bigger pussies, which is kind of my point.

Whether they suffer from racism, sexism, homophobia, religious bigotry or some other form of insanity, tyrants have only as much power as is given to them, by cowards.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

"WATCH: Pope Francis Stops To Bless And Kiss Disabled Man"

That's a headline linking to an online video. I'm not going to click it and watch. I can picture what it looks like. The thing is, I can't stop wondering how many people who thought condoms are evil died of AIDS during the few seconds when the Pope blessed and kissed that man, how many contracted HIV, or gave birth to a child they will be able to feed and clothe only with great difficulty (and how many of those babies were born with AIDS), or how many sweatshop laborers died inside sweatshops, and how many of them were children, and how many of those children had never seen the inside of a school, and how many labor organizers had been beaten or arrested or killed.

I understand the excitement over the Oh Look How Humble Pope Francis Is! Show, but I'm already tired of it. I can't remember any humility which was as gratuitous and vain as this.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Poets, Artists, Hollywood, Money

For a long time I thought that I was very good at remembering passages from books and dialogue from movies and TV word-for-word. In the past few years I have come to grips with the fact that I am not especially good at it. What seems to me like a vivid and exact memory to me is, over and over, in fact quite different from the original text. For example, for a long time I was quite certain that I remembered a character in a movie -- I couldn't recall what character in which movie -- saying, "When poets dream they dream of money." I'm now fairly sure that that was a mis-remembering of a line spoken by Ricky Jay's character in David Mamet's movie The Spanish Prisoner --a terrific movie, by the way, and very much about money among other things. The thing is, I'm not sure whether we're meant to understand that Jay's character is saying (approximately if not word-for-word), "As the poet said, 'Let us dream,' and when we dream, we dream of money," or, "As the poet said, 'Let us dream, and when we dream, we dream of money.'"

I had assumed it was the latter, and thought that it might make sense because poets -- poets in the USA, at least -- tend to make very little money from poetry, so that they would dream of money as naturally as hungry people dream of food.

If it's the former then it sounds much more like the attempt of a man whose business is money to lend an artistic air to his profession.

In the past couple of days I saw another character in another movie, an actress, I've already forgotten which actress and which movie, say something like, "Don't they say that artists dream of money?" The actual line may be quite different, the only thing I'm reasonably sure of is that the movie didn't seem particularly interesting to me and I didn't watch the whole thing.

Movies are probably the art form which makes the most money. Movies or pop music. Gene Siskel said, in a good PBS series about Hollywood from the early 90's, said it with notable conviction and no ifs ands or buts, that Hollywood movies were the biggest big-time in showbiz, implying that if TV people doubted this they were deluded. Remember, my mortal enemy is Cliche Man, and cliches are cliches, not necessarily, as the cliche says, because they are true, but because they sound good. But Siskel may have gotten this one right.

Guy Ritchie's movie RocknRolla --another terrific movie, by the way, and also very much with money as one of its themes --seems to suggest that rock n roll is the biggest big-time in show biz. Perhaps that's true when you compare British rock n roll to British movies, and and false when you compare the most big-time pop music to Hollywood movies.

Without a doubt, the biggest big-time Hollywood movies involve a lot of money. Folks is gettin' paid. (The producers and studios heads are gettin' paid much more than the stars.) And so perhaps this business about artists (or poets) dreaming of money, if it does not merely sound good but is also true, is more true about Hollywood movie folks than about artists in general. It may be relevant, not because it applies to impoverished artists, but, quite on the contrary, because it applies to the very wealthiest people who could conceivably be called artistic or poetic, and it may be that these rick folks are rich because they're always dreaming of money, and the poor poets and artists, generally speaking, may not miss the money as much as I would think. Perhaps, among the group of children with anything like an interest in writing, the ones more preoccupied with money tend to give up poetry before they're full-grown, in favor of writing screenplays full-time, or the better-looking ones among the potential screenwriters may have tended to have gotten their teeth whitened and noses fixed in order to go after the bigger movie-star money, if they haven't given that up to become movie execs, if they haven't given up Hollywood altogether for Wall Street, to work with people like Ricky Jay's character in The Spanish Prisoner and tell each other in their spare time that they're artistic.

As with so many posts on this blog, I have no answers here, but mainly just a few questions, which I hope some reader or another may have found to be interesting food for thought.

Sunday, March 17, 2013


Or at least it feels as if I am, in the desert of nonsense about selling the Vatican and giving the money to the poor.

If you haven't heard anyone talking about selling all the artwork in the Vatican Museum, then you hang out with a better, more sensible class of people than I do, and I envy you and want to know where you hang out. I hear it everywhere I look. I try to explain that the people who would benefit from such a fire sale would be the buyers, who benefit anytime extraordinary things are sold extraordinarily quickly. I try to explain that although the accumulation of art may seem huge to them, it is actually paltry in comparison to the power the Vatican wields.

Could be worse: so far I haven't noticed any demands that the Vatican Library part abruptly with all of its manuscripts.

I think it could be that some of them genuinely hate wealth and luxury and finery, as intensely as any wild-eyed Calvinist ever did. That what bothers them is not poverty, but wealth. Perhaps a huge portion of the world's Left, including atheists, suffers from remnants of Puritan mental illnesses, remnants of bad Calvinist and Pietist mental habits, and Savonarolian tendencies in Leftist Catholics and their descendants, and let's not forget Daddy-hating children of right-wing Catholics, and flat-out crazy anti-Catholic bigots, and I'm less familiar with the histories of non-Christian religiously-based neuroses. And of course it's often clueless pampered rich kids who think they hate wealth, and think that their light slumming has taught them what poverty is.

To destroy wealth is not to alleviate poverty, shall remain my lonely cry. Sometimes there may be a causal link between wealth being accumulated and poverty spreading, as with the wealth of the owners of sweatshops, and with social programs disappearing so that slight taxes on great wealth may sink further. Neither of those models is sustainable. But that link is not universal. If it's assumed in all cases then often the destruction of wealth will only be useless destruction.

I just wish that the fixation on the wealth of the Catholic Church would ease a bit, making room for more thought about what would do the poor some good. It seems so simple to me: if you want to help the poor then they're the ones you need to concentrate on.

Pope Francis

I'm starting to sour on him a little, I must say. I think the word he has repeated most frequently in his Papacy so far has been "poor." He says he wants the church to serve the poor. As we know, different people mean different things when they say they want to help the poor. When I say it I mean I want to eliminate poverty. I have a feeling that's not what Francis has in mind. And in fact eliminating poverty would directly contradict Holy Scripture: remember, Jesus said that the poor would be with him always.

And of course, as many people have pointed out, the Catholic Church is now strongest in the poorest parts of the world. Is Francis a real revolutionary, as some optimists have speculated, or, quite to the contrary, does he want to keep the Church strong by keeping the number of people in poverty huge?

Refusing to wear some of the Papal bling which had become usual before his pontificate, riding in a bus with the other Cardinals instead of in a Papal limousine, personally paying a hotel bill -- these things don't impress me. They're peanuts. The Catholic Church has billions if not trillions of Euros at its disposal -- and a Euro is more than a dollar -- and Francis apparently expects people to ooh and ahh at gestures which amount to dozens or hundreds. And anyway, conspicuous consumption doesn't spread poverty. If wealth is accumulated through sweatshops and union-busting, then yes, it does spread poverty. But ornate robes and high-end jewelry are made by skilled craftsman at high wages, a large part of which wages go into the general economy -- whatever, just study some basic economics, and no, Ayn Rand was not an economist, she was merely a creep.

Birth control in the Third World would help the poor. Francis is no help there. Education would help the poor. Francis is not a Franciscan, he is a Jesuit, and when the Jesuits began they were among the best educators in Europe and the European colonies. Many Jesuits and their fans will insist that they still are, but of course that isn't true. Many students who received the benefits of an education by the Jesuits in the 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th centuries grew up to be quite secular and eventually to create secular institutions of learning. And I'm not even going to add "--paradoxically" to the end of the previous sentence. It was no paradox. In the earlier centuries of the Jesuits' existence there were no non-Christian universities in Christendom, and non-Christian schools at lower levels were relatively scarce, and private tutors and private scholars also were clergypeople more often than not. In short, Christianity still had a monopoly, pretty much a stranglehold, on Western education. Therefore it makes absolutely no sense to assume that a clergyperson had chosen his or her vocation for the sake of religion and not for the sake of education, and no sense to assume that a Jesuit teacher was Christian in more than name only. And in fact many of the leading, most blatant anti-clerics of previous centuries were Jesuit clerics. It wasn't a paradox at all, it was a function of circumstance. Now that there are abundant opportunities for education completely apart from Christendom, it does make sense to assume that a Jesuit is saddled with quite a bit of superstition of the exact kind from which earlier generations of Jesuits sought to free their charges.

If by helping the poor Francis means raising them up out of poverty, and if he actually succeeds in doing so in significant numbers, then he will succeed in significantly shrinking the Catholic Church. (As well as deservedly winning the love and gratitude of many people, Catholic and non-.) If he means to keep their loyalty with an occasional kind word and pat on the head and bowl of soup and crust of bread or bowl of rice and pair of second-hand shoes, then he's not really their friend. Many misguided Leftists seem to find poverty picturesque, and despise wealth and luxury. (I'm a Leftist, but not that kind.) Maybe Francis is one of those. If so, many Leftists will love him, and the poorest human populations will not do nearly as well as they would have with a Pope who loved the bling and the limousines and ate haute cuisine and stayed in penthouses whenever he traveled, and used his power to CHANGE things, to expose exploitative right-wing regimes, to combat multinationals which sell products from sweatshops and industrial farms, to support unions, and education, and access to the best medical care for the broadest possible populations, and birth control and other women's rights.

I was actually fairly optimistic for a few hours of Francis' papacy. Now I feel I was taken in. Which is not to say that I think Francis is insincere. I have no idea how sincere he might be. And I also don't much care. His actions are going to be what they will be, whatever motivates them. But I hope that I'm now wrong to feel taken in, and that Francis actually will change some of the big things, and not merely the Papal wardrobe.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Cognitive Dissonance of Mother Teresa's Defenders

Celeste Owen-Jones has written a ridiculous response to some criticisms of Mother Teresa. The very end of her article contains the jist of the whole: [...]if Mother Teresa did such a bad job helping others, why not save that time spent criticizing her to instead try to make a difference in this world?

I really wonder, would Ms Owen-Jones respond thusly to criticism of anyone else? Would even a publication as silly as her employer, The Huffington Post, publish such a defense of anyone else? It's absurd in several different ways.

Perhaps most obviously, Mother Teresa's critics ARE trying to improve the lot of the sick and destitute in Calcutta -- by shining a bright light on the shortcomings of Mother Teresa's clinics, they're trying to improve the chances that these people will receive competent medical care, in sanitary conditions, by people with enough compassion to give pain medication to someone who's in agony.

The author seems to think that the last sentence of her article is somehow more than an attempt to change the subject and impune the character of the critics. But how does she know how much money and time Mother Teresa's critics give to charity and to the support of more humane governmental policies, and other efforts to help mankind? She doesn't know, obviously. Rather than even attempt a substantive response to the criticism, she hurls ridiculous, childish insults. When has it ever made sense to respond to criticism of an historical figure by asking the critics to shut up and go forth and do good works (and assume that they don't do good works already)? But perhaps the final words of Ms Owen-Jones' article actually are more than a change of subject and a silly insult. More, and not in a good way. If you look around through the readers' comments under this article in The Huffington Post, it seems that "Why doncha try ta do better n Muddah Teresa, huh? Ya ijit, ya!" combined with a complete obliviousness to the substance of the criticisms -- that the clinics were filthy breeding grounds for disease, that hypodermic needles were rinsed in cold water before being used again, instead of being properly sterilized and instead of accepting abundant numbers of clean needles which people tried to give to the clinics, that doctors and nurses who volunteered to treat the patients were turned away and the patients attended to by nuns without medical training instead, among other accusation which are even more chilling -- is the rallying cry of a veritable horde of pious fools blind and deaf to the faults of saints and soon-to-be-saints. It's obvious that Hindus aren't the only ones with sacred cows. How do we reason with people determined to remain unreasonable?

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

William H Gass

It irks me that William H Gass still has not been awarded the Nobel Prize. They blew it with Gass' pal William Gaddis, who died Nobel-less in 1997, and in the meantime Gass has become 88 years old. What are they waiting for?

Gass is a critic who is more than a critic, he also writes fiction and hard-to-classify essays, and those of his works which can be classified as criticism are also completely distinctive. This is not your father's New York Times book reviewer. Some time ago I almost completely stopped caring about the opinions of critics who haven't produced impressive work in the genre they criticize: people who review novels who are not novelists, music reviewers who are not musicians, etc. That leaves Gass who besides the unclassifiable essays has written novels and short stories, and T S Eliot who I believe wrote some poems, and who else? Yeah, Matthew Arnold, but do we really still care what Arnold said? (Really?) And let's be frank, Eliot's appeal, too, has faded sharply with the perspective of time. Gass writes rings around him and a few other Nobel laureates, and has the added appeal, unlike Eliot, of not being a bigot.

It's strange that of all the American novelists who served in the military in WWII, Gass is still alive. Strange because he has always looked so sickly. Okay, these days he actually doesn't look half bad for an 88-year-old -- and he's still writing. His brand-new novel Middle C is scheduled to be published next week -- but half a century ago his appearance was alarming, and it would have seemed strange if someone had predicted that he would outlive Gaddis and Heller and Stone and Jones and Mailer and Brossard and Hawkes and Vidal and Baldwin and Dickey and Bellow and Cheever and Vonnegut and all of the rest of them -- never mind all of them: half a century ago it might have seemed you were going out on a limb if you'd pointed to the little fat guy who always looked as if he'd just been poisoned, always with a look of a bitter taste in his mouth on his face, and predicted that he would outlast any a them studs. And yet here he still is being absolutely wonderful.

What virtual shoe can I throw in your direction to sufficiently get your attention about Gass, how can I reach through cyberspace to grab your lapels and shake you, because this is important, because you will thank me if you've never read Gass and you start because of me, because he will change your life, because, to paraphrase what he (correctly) said about his pal Gaddis, his writing is so good it will make you stand up and shout Yes! Yes! Something is good in this crappy sad world! Because against the mediocrity of what usually passes for good writing Gass' writing stands out like lightning against muddy grey clouds.

Okay, I guess I've done what I can and you will do what yr gonna do.

Monday, March 4, 2013

I Am The Wrong Monkey, Hear Me Roar

Hearing The Three Degrees sing "Everybody's Going To The Moon" in The French Connection hasn't actually been the worst experience of my life. It wasn't actually even the worst experience I've had in the past week. The one comment I've gotten so far, about the post where I said that, was actually almost as traumatic for me as those several minutes of movie soundtrack. I suspect that the person who wrote that comment may not have read the entire post before commenting on it. I actually end up saying some nice things about The Three Degrees, and speculating that maybe the scene in the movie where they sing comes off so badly for me because of the way it was recorded, which may have been completely out of their control. Be that as it may, of course, everyone has the right to think whatever they want of anything I write, just as I have every right to dislike some recordings by The Three Degrees, such as that one, and to like some of their other recordings, such as "When Will I See You Again," the favorite soul song of the 70's of Bill from Kill Bill.

The point I'm rambling toward here is that I write some things on this blog which I don't mean for people to take anywhere near literally. The title of my previous post is one example. Other examples are when I refer to agnostics as the worst people in the history of the Earth, or imply that all Buddhists annoy me, or put a tagline under the blog's title which reads Ce n'est pas le faux singe, or for that matter, the blog's current tagline: as far as I know I don't actually have any mortal enemies and no scheming supervillain named Cliche Man exists. Or for that matter, my identity as The Wrong Monkey. I'm not a monkey, and I'm not always wrong, and we all know that, and that is supposed to set the tone for the blog: you can't always be sure whether I'm being entirely serious. Every now and then I'm asking my readers to take a moment and think about what I'm doing. Sometimes, there's no getting around it, I'm just messing with you.

I'm not blaming that commenter for being angry, not at all. On the contrary, I feel bad for upsetting him or her. I really do. It's perfectly understandable that someone might visit this blog for the first time and completely misunderstand what's going on. That's one of the unfortunate things which often happen with writers like me who are often sarcastic. Jonathon Swift, I'm almost entirely certain, never intended for people to eat any human babies. Not even Irish ones.

Similarly, I don't actually think that agnostics are the worst people in the history of the world. Of course I don't. As a matter of fact, I suspect that some of them are perfectly adorable. The thing is that, being who I am and doing what I do, occasionally I come across agnostics who insist that agnostics are the smartest people ever, smarter than religious people and also smarter than atheists. This aggravates me, not only for the sake of myself and my fellow atheists but also for the sake of the religious believers I know who happen to be much brighter than the agnostics who claim to be the pinnacle of human intellect. That actual pinnacle doesn't hold very many people, and the number of people claiming to be the pinnacle is of course many times greater than the people who actually are (Newsflash, morons: if you're actually extremely intelligent, you don't have to tell people that you are. They can tell.), and so most of the people claiming to be the state of the art in brains, whether they're agnostic, atheist or religious, are just smug clueless swine, and I deal with my frustration with them by coming to this blog and being a big silly poopy-head myself, and I make myself laugh and hopefully I make a couple of other people laugh as well, and the world continues to spin.

Similarly with Buddhists. I get along fine with some of them. Unless we start to talk about Buddhism, and they claim that their religion is not actually a religion. There are no Buddhist gods! they insist. What-everrr! The Dalai Lama and, oh, for instance, the Buddha are treated as at least demi-gods by many Buddhists, and the Buddhists who say they're not religious are just in denial. And no, Buddhists, I don't want to debate that with you, any more than I want to debate the Virgin Birth with a conservative Catholic, and for very similar reasons.

Which of course in no way means I can't get along with you otherwise, or with that conservative Catholic, for that matter.

It might be too late for me ever to be friends with the commenter I offended with my previous post, and that would be unfortunate. But there might be a chance, if that person realizes that that post was meant as a (greatly exaggerated) description of my own personal experience, and that I don't believe, nor did I wish to imply, that my opinion about that nightclub scene in The French Connection is more important than anybody else's opinion. If that person enjoys a recording which I don't enjoy, well then God in Whom I don't believe bless them and that's that. Well no, actually that's not that. Sometimes I'm the lucky one, the one who gets it and is moved by a piece of music which a lot of other people only sneer at: at those massive jams in Phil Collins' "Sussudio" and "Take Me Home," at "Disco Inferno," at ABBA, at Miles Davis playing "Time After Time." They sneer, and they're wrong, I know that they're wrong and that I'm the lucky one, because I can actually hear it, and that's that. Am I going to turn right around and say somebody is wrong because they say they can hear something wonderful that I don't hear? No way. Not in a million years. I will not assume that I'm not completely missing something. And as far as this blog is concerned, I'm neither a record exec nor a music critic nor even a particularly gifted musician, I'm just a clown who now and then chooses to be very, very silly, who, nine times out of ten, given the choice, would much rather make someone smile than be taken seriously. I am The Wrong Monkey. Hear me roar!

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Most Horrible Experience Of My Life

It happened to me again just recently, and I know that it happened to some of you, too. It's horrible, but I think it's important that what talk about it: I was watching The French Connection, and I heard The Three Degrees singing "Everybody's Going to the Moon."

So bad! At the time The French Connection was released it was the movie's score by Don Ellis which raised somewhat of an uproar. The Three Degrees were one of the few musical interruptions, over the course of the entire movie, of Don Ellis' work, which was controversial among film folk at the time. People found it very harsh. The normally quite sensible Pauline Kael got a little carried away and called Ellis' soundtrack an integral part of the movie's effort to effect a fascist overthrow of the world's democracies. Kael used the term fascist to describe two movies which were released around the same time in 1971, The French Connection and also Dirty Harry. In the case of Dirty Harry I can see her point: the title character is a deliberately-glamourized version of a basically lawless vigilante employed temporarily by the police who is held back from ridding society of a cartoon version of a hideous villain by cartoon versions of impossibly misguided liberals. In The French Connection both the criminals and the police are much more lifelike, and if there's one thing fascist fiction isn't, it's realistic. The star of Dirty Harry went on to be a horribly-overrated movie director, a jazz musician who through decades of very hard work went from very poor to mediocre with occasional flashes of not bad (Yes, that's him singing half of the title track at the end of Gran Torino), a Republican mayor of Carmel, California and a nationwide punchline babbling at an empty chair at the 2012 Republican National Convention (Like I said, fascist fiction is never realistic), while the star of The French Connection managed to maintain a mostly-liberal reputation despite one collaboration with America's most horribly-overrated director and a long-term voiceover deal with a nationwide hardware-store chain. Anyway, Kael spent some time describing each movie's score, seeming to like Lalo Schifrin's work on Dirty Harry -- "he works on you," she remarked, employing the metaphor of police brutality, as does the band name The Three Degrees (like "the third degree") -- somewhat more than Ellis' soundtrack for The French Connection.

Well, I dare to disagree with the great Kael on that point, except that it's really not daring at all anymore. Schifrin's score sounds much more dated and corny 42 years on than Ellis'. Ellis' score no longer sounds like deliberate acoustical torture. Ellis was way ahead of his time, our ears have done a lot of catching up in the meantime. Far from sounding harsh, resuming right after The Three Degrees are done singing "Everybody's Going to The Moon," Ellis' brass and strings are downright soothing.

Not that most any sound wouldn't have been soothing coming right after that song. It's so bad! It's stuck in my head and it's making me sick! Each one of the Degrees, portraying the entertainment in the bar where Popeye and Smoky first spot some of the hoods involved in smuggling all that smack, wears a sequined dress in a different primary or secondary color. This and some superficial aspects of their music lead me to believe that they were attempting to ride the coattails of Diana Ross and the Supremes, one of the most popular bands in the world at the time. But the Degrees were no Supremes. They were just -- hold on. I just found out that The Three Degrees are the band that recorded "When Will I See You Again," the huge R&B hit which was released in 1974. I love that record. (Maybe you kids haven't heard it, but it's the one David Carradine calls his favorite soul record from the 70's in Kill Bill vol 2). I wouldn't go that far, because there are just a huge number of great soul records made in the 70's -- if you're not familiar with any of them, maybe the best introduction would be Boogie Nights, the movie about the adult-entertainment industry in the Valley in the 70's -- but it's wonderful, smooth and full of heart and style. This just breaks this post in half. What am I gonna do now?

Well, I stand by assessment of The Three Degrees' performance in The French Connection. Terrible, terrible, terrible, terrible! I was going to say that they were one of the bazillion fake rock and R&B bands you can see in Hollywood movies until well into the 70's, whose music is grotesque and strange because it was the conception of Hollywood music pros who didn't understand or like rock or R&B. I was going to place them in the same genre as Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett and Count Basie, who didn't understand the new music taking over their market shares beginning in the mid-50's, and whose main impression of the new stuff was that it was very loud and shrill, and so they fought back by amplifying their own music more and partially electrifying it in some cases, and the results weren't necessarily terrible, misguided as these efforts to adapt may have been, because Sinatra and Bennett and Basie and a lot of others in their genre, whatever one might want to call it, had lots and lots of talent, and i was going to say that in the case of The Three Degrees, the talent wasn't there, which left you with loud and shrill, and give you a terrifying glimpse into the lives of people who just didn't get the new loud music at all. I was going to say things such as that those sequined dressed didn't make The Three Degrees the Supremes any more than than calling The Guess Who The Guess Who made them The Who. And I was also going to say things about genre, like how Blue Öyster Cult and Grand Funk Railroad were both in the same genre but only one of them was good.

But finding out that one and the same group sang both "Everybody's Going To The Moon" and "When Will I See You Again" throws a huge wrench into all of that. Maybe The Three Degrees were simply very badly mis-recorded in The French Connection, because the person making the recording for the movie was one of those crusty old Hollywood pros who equated R&B with ear torture, and so when he was assigned to record this, surprise surprise, the recording came out sounding like torture, like Please, God, kill me now.

Be all of that as it may: we don't have to listen to it any more. When that bar scene comes we can fast-forward or hit the mute button, or change channels, or step out of the theatre into the lobby and stretch our legs, or do whatever we have to do. We'll get through this. Together.

Friday, March 1, 2013

"This Could Be The Last Time, I Don't Know..."

I've tried many, many times to correct some of the widespread misconceptions about the early history of Christianity. Then yesterday this happened:

A: well, Constantine THREW HALF OF THE "BIBLE" AWAY, so even the POPE doesn't have a clue what his own religion is based on...aside from the whims of the editors and rewriters through the century

ME: Constantine ordered 50 copies of the Bible to be made. That's the most that we know about his involvement with the Bible. To me it seems quite possible that he never read a word of it. The topic of what was in the Bible and what was not was not on the agenda of the council of Nicea in 325. No doubt, Arians and Gnostics and other groups of Christians, along with the texts they considered holy, were wiped out with Constantine's help, but that bit about Constantine putting the New Testament together is just one of the many things Dan Brown got wrong.

A: I make no reference to Dan Brown, and the finalization for THAT TIME was at Carthage; in general, the fact that Constantine, the Niceans and later a bunch of other HUMANS decided which fairy tales were "based in reality", and at Nicea the Arians surely got their beliefs torn to shreds and discarded, along with other sects you mention.

Okay, first of all, did you get all that? Yeah, me neither. And secondly, not only did I have no more interest in talking to this person, but also, suddenly, and for the first time, I got the feeling that I no longer wanted to correct anyone who, for instance, believes that Constantine edited the New Testament. And that's an awful lot of people. I probably will keep making the effort, but all of a sudden I just felt so exhausted, and so disinclined to talk about these subjects with anyone who hadn't gone to the trouble of researching what they were going to pontificate about, or had drastically erred in estimating who constituted reliable research material. Is this similar to what Joseph Hoffmann means when he refers to Jesus fatigue?

This is the question of the ivory tower. And I guess I know that I'm going to continue to answer that question the same way: I'm going to stay outside of the tower and try to, please pardon the phrase, educate people. I just can't bring myself to give morons like Dan Brown and all the yokels at the History Channel the satisfaction of giving up and not pushing back any more against all of their bullshit. Even though my task is very difficult and aggravating sometimes.

PS, 10:05 AM: I just came across a comparison of the Bible and Harry Potter for about the 1000th time. Merely simpleminded is nowhere near as irritating as simpleminded and completely unoriginal. It occurs to me that there actually must be very many people have never read any books other than the Bible and Harry Potter.