Monthly Archives: January 2014

On Cussing

While going through some old papers I found this poem I had written for a friend of mine. She had recently accepted a position far removed from her family and friends and was having a difficult time acclimating to the popular (though not necessarily polite) society of secular America. Her new friends thought it was quaint that she made a point of not cussing, and would tease her about it in a friendly sort of way. All the same, she was tired of being thought of as the “innocent home-schooled girl,” and was reaching the point of saying, “To hell with it, curse ’em all!” I rather liked the fact that she was principled in her use of language and had thus far avoided the banality of lackadaisically cursing the world. So with tongue firmly placed in cheek I wrote this poem.

On Cussing*
For B.**

When thoughts run short of words that will fit
Just resort to an emphatic “F__k!” “D__n!” or “S__t!”
Those percussive caesuras of thought,

“Oh f__k.”

That succinctly conceal that you’ve run out of luck
In expressing what’s stuck in your head,

“Ah s__t.”

And emotions explode clothed in words that don’t fit.
So, finding yourself with nothing to say,
by all means, f__kin’ A B., just cuss away!

*Since mixed company will often peruse my blog(namely, my mother) I have elected to self-censor.
**For her sake I’ve redacted her name. It must be noted though that the use of her initial in lieu of her name in no way detracts from the cadence in the last line.

The Horrifically Hip

The ability the modern individual has to listen to just about any kind of music he can dig up destroys the modern individual’s sense of self. When asked what kind of music he enjoys listening to, the discerning hipster will inevitably proclaim, “Why good music of course!” Culture and genre mean nothing, the only thing that matter is that the music is “honest” and “real” and “played with authentic feeling.” Whether this music is the product of a down-and-out hobo, or a lovesick bluesman, a sad Celtic lament, or a Motown crooner, the culture it arises out of doesn’t really matter as long as the music is “real.’

This striving for authenticity in emotion and content demonstrates how rare these attributes are in our own everyday lives. To say that the most important aspect of any song be that it is “real,” “raw” and “authentic” just shows what a dearth there is of such attributes in our world. We thirst after the real because deep down we know that we aren’t real. We hollow men are phantoms who observe the reality of others lives. We thirst after the real like vampires thirst for blood and we can never slack our thirst. Still, there is one authentic certainty stuck in our psyche, and that is, nothing that we do is authentic. Our actions are all a mock up of the real. Authenticity is beyond our self consciousness and so all our actions are informed by a sense of irony. We know that we will never be anything, but we can always pretend. This is the hipster mentality in a nutshell.

So, why is the hipster so convinced of his own inauthenticity, or rather, why is he so utterly convinced of his own ethereal nature? How is it that the hipster divorced himself from the realm of flesh and blood and found that he had been damned to wander the liminal fringes of existence, imitating what he saw, but never becoming anything himself. How did the hipster so ironically distance himself from the world that he ceased to exist, except as a parody of himself. Why does he have no substance? And why does he think that he is the only damned person in the whole world who knows and can truly appreciate the authentic? These questions bring to mind a poem by Emily Dickinson which explores the concept of knowledge gained through loss, her untitled poem number 67.

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.

Not one of all the purple Host
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition
So clear of Victory

As he defeated—dying—
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear

Perhaps here is a key. Except, for our present quandary we will substitute “authenticity” for victory. So, in this reading, the hipster is the only one in all of God’s green creation who appreciates the authentic because he is in fact the most inauthentic thing in all of God’s green creation (next to the devil himself of course.)

So then, the hipster is the self-proclaimed expert on all that is authentic without being authentic himself, hence the ironic persona. It is as if he lives on the life blood that is others authenticity. He is the self conscious undead. But this still doesn’t tell us where he comes from, it merely lets us know he is self conscious and he is undead. I suppose this could be said to be the opposite of clueless and undead, in which case we’d be dealing with zombies, i.e. the thoughtless bourgeois consumers of modern American. Regardless, neither are living.

So he is undead and he knows it. He cannot meaningfully contribute to the world but he can appreciate things for their authenticity within the world. He considers himself better than his fellow undead, because unlike the masses, the zombies, he is aware of his position, while they are ignorant of it. Why is he no longer among the living? Why is he and the denizens of the civilization which birthed him doomed to continue in this life? What is their purpose

Posers, Punks, Panhandlers and the Truth

A lot of the beggars I’ve come across stateside are either crusties punks or New Age travelers. I met quite a few of these train-hopping kids while busking on Cary Street in Richmond. A good deal of them come from white middle-class suburban families. Most of them end up on the road out of a sort of rebellion against consumerist culture. About half of the kids I’ve met in Richmond have been buskers playing old-timey music. A lot of them are big into dumpster diving and most of the ones who don’t play music are just straight-up panhandlers.

When I was younger, while still in high school, I used to get my mom riled by telling her I saw more hope in a bunch of punks than I ever did in any church youth groups, ’cause at least the punks knew something was wrong with society. If not for the excellent liberal arts education I received in college I imagine that there’s a good chance I’d have fallen into such a lifestyle myself. Growing up I was under the impression that the extent of American Culture was McDonald’s, pop music, and television. It was hardly surprising to me that young people would dress up in ripped jeans and torn T-shirts and flail about to screeching guitars and pounding drums; if McDonald’s, Coca Cola and MTV is the only culture bequeathed you by your forebearers, well then screw it. And of course the rest of the world was far more intruiging and interesting; at least they had a real culture with real art and real music. All we had in America was a bunch of fakes cashing in. It was only in my freshman year of college that I began to rediscover the vibrant American culture that consumerism and liberalism had obfuscated.

In the first semester of my freshman year I read the southern agrarians, mainly Donald Davidson and Allen Tate, as well as all of the essays from “I‘ll Take my Stand.” Their defence of traditional Southern culture as well as their pointed criticism of Modernism was something I had never encountered before. Around the same time I was also reading quite a bit about Eliot’s “The Waste Land” for a literary criticism class. Needless to say, the two views provided a stark counterpoint to each other. All of this coincided with my rediscovery of country, bluegrass, Irish-trad, and old-timey music. Over the next four years, as I meandered through the great works of Western Civilization, I discovered the thread which connected me to all the generations who had come before. It was through this discovery that I began to realize the significance of my own life within a living tradition.

A lot of the kids I’ve met out on the street aren’t too much different than myself back when I was seventeen. They realize that there is something wrong with how our society is ordered but they don’t know what. A lot of them buy into some kind of “ism” and begin proselytizing like its the end of the world. Others just say screw it and drop out of society.

Ironically, a lot of these homeless traveler kids are discovering something of an older America. A good deal of the kids I’ve met are more into traditional old timey music than punk or hard core. One reason, I suppose, is that its easier to jump a train with a mandolin than an electric guitar. Another is the fact that old timey music is one of the most uncommercial genres you’re going to find. When one is running away from a world of fakes authenticity is paramount and most of the time the commercially unviable is authentic. Unfortunately, all they see is the fruit of a healthier society without recognizing the tree from which it sprung.

Roman Panhandlers

Having done quite a bit of busking in the U.S. and Europe, I’ve ran into my share of beggars and street urchins. Finding a good busking spot is a tricky business, often the best pitch also happens to be a good spot for begging. While busking in Trastevere one day I was informed by a rather bedraggled traveler that I had taken his place. I had seen the man about begging before, so I simply told him “non loso italiano” and went on playing. A bit later I saw the man across the piazza animatedly talking to a couple of tough-looking punks while gesticulating wildly in my direction. When the man saw me looking at them, he stopped and gave me a friendly wave. His two companions merely scowled. I decided that discretion was the better part of courage, said “Ah si, loso, loso,” and strategically withdrew. His two leather-clad associates both had enough tattoos and piercings to qualify them for any halfway respectable freak show, and the pit-bull-like muts they kept by them were none to friendly. (You will often see travelers and beggars in possession of a nasty mut. The acrimonious beast is present to complicate matters if the local constabulary takes a mind to start enforcing any laws; most officers would rather leave well enough alone.)

Around about the Coliseum and the Pantheon one is likely to encounter a dark-haired fortyish women who will boldly walk up to you and say, “Oh thank God, finally another American! I’ve been walking around for hours looking for help, I don’t know what to do.” Now, I appreciate a good story now and again and she had a fair one. In very good english she continued her tale of coming to Italy to learn Italian and how some thief stole her purse with all her money and she just needs enough to get back to her hotel. So, amused, I gave her a euro. “But what am I to do?! The place where I am staying is an hour outside the city and the bus costs forty euro!” Sorry, honey, thats all I got. “But what am I to do?” I guess you’ll just have to meet thirty nine more people like me. Good english by the way.

The same lady accosted a number of students in my class at various different times. Our theology professor, Monseigneur O’Brien, a short rotund fellow from County Cork, had an elegant solution he employed. When the same lady came up to him he looked at her quizzically for a moment and said, “Haven’t I met you before?” She hurriedly left.

One of the most pitiful sights I saw was outside of St. Peter’s in an underground thoroughfare beneath a major street. Kneeling face down on the ground was a gypsy woman and her young son with a tin cup and a small electronic keyboard in front of them. As I walked by the young boy reached out and pressed a button on the keyboard and it started playing an electronic rendition of ”Ode to Joy.” As the melody came to an end the little boy looked up at me with the most pitiful expression on his face, held out the cup and said, “ Per favore, Signor.” It was all I could do to keep from cracking up laughing.

Some Thoughts on Music

Over the last couple of years I have found myself engaged in a number of critical discussions involving the nature and end of music. On numerous occasions these discussions have been crippled by my interlocutor’s assertion that there was no way to account for taste or to pass judgment on the quality of a musical piece. It was their opinion that the measure of music was only to be found in the ear of the listener, and if someone else didn’t like their particular kind of music, so be it, to each his own. To them, the talent of a musician or the particular musical worth of a piece were not things that could be perceived as concrete objective qualities; on the contrary, the musical worth of a piece was a completely subjective matter. Ones propensity for listening to the shrill and shrieking virtuosity of a heavy metal guitarist was in no way a judgment against another’s love of the resonant, rippling notes of a violinist playing Vivaldi. Beauty itself was amorphous, shaped only by the listener’s ear. In as much as the beauty of a thing was only formed in the ear of the listener, it then followed that beautiful things no longer possessed transcendent qualities which could manifest themselves in various mediums. The song existed only as a haphazard catalyst which might or might not produce a reaction in the ear of the listener.
I reject this assertion. I hold that just like everything else conceived and shaped by man, there are objective standards by which to judge the quality of a thing, be it a song, a performer, or a whole musical genre. Following on this, I believe it is possible to objectively state that some forms of music are superior to others in how they shape and correspond to the world around them. Naturally, one cannot criticize a thing in a vacuum; things exist in relation to the world around them and must be judged accordingly. One wouldn’t judge a lullaby by the standards of a military march, or a ballad according to the qualities of a dance tune. All of these things are particular to their own place in the world and the quality of each of them can only be discerned by how well they correspond to their place. Dissonance arises when a thing becomes lost or misplaced and falls out of harmony with its surroundings.
Amid all the noise of modern existence it is easy to forget the significance of words like harmony and dissonance. Most times we find ourselves in a position where the most we can functionally distinguish between is the near constant cacophony of our culture and the rare blessing of an occasional bit of peace and quiet. To try to distinguish some harmonious cohesion existing amidst all of the sounds around us is a hard task and generally we tend to accept some level of dissonance as the status quo. The crassness of the mechanical world has grafted its harsh logic into how we listen and our culture has become the poorer for it. However, even amidst all of the sound and fury of the modern age we still retain some recollection of the simple logic of a song.
Songs are unique among the things crafted by men, for while the words of a song are gathered from the pieces of our fractured fallen world, its melody is transcendent and resides on a plain in which all things resolve in harmonious accord. The inevitable rise and fall of the melodic line is mirrored in the movement of the seasons, the planting in spring and the harvest of fall. Life rises up out of the earth, blossoms and ripens, then withers, dies and returns to the earth. Hidden in a melody’s harmonious resolution is a promise unrevealed by mans observation of the natural world. This promise is that mans inevitable return is not to a cacophonous abyss but to the harmonious tonic which he had sought and desired from his inception. In its resolution the melody allows man a glimpse of the peace that lies beyond his own return to the dusty earth.
Some would argue that this interpretation of a melody’s movement is arbitrary, that man creates what he desires, he makes things how he would have them. According to them we reside in chaos, men in a maelstrom, trying to salvage a craft from the flotsam and jetsam, and hoping by some miracle to ride out the storm. If so, there really isn’t much point in discussing the matter since it’s an infinite storm and we’re all going to die anyway. Under such circumstances Epicureanism is the only logical response. That or suicide. But let’s say that there wrong and that the movement of a melody and a man’s life aren’t arbitrary, that one participates seamlessly in the other and there really is an inevitable logic and necessity in our movement towards a harmonious resolution. If this is the case, and I believe it is, then the movement and logic of a simple song takes on a whole new significance that resonates far deeper than a just handful of rhythmically staggered tones sounding in our ears. Song becomes the physical manifestation of the movement of our soul.

Rose Vestments and National Healthcare

A while back my mother related a conversation she had overheard between a woman and her child after Mass. The woman had asked her 11-year-old son if he knew why the priest had worn rose colored vestments at Mass that Sunday. After a moment’s thoughtful pause, the boy replied “I don’t know for sure but I think it has something to do with breast cancer awareness, right?”

It seems a logical conclusion to draw, given our society’s obsession with promoting physical health while completely neglecting our cultures spiritual wellness (or sickness as the case may be).

The story reminded me of a long discussion I had with my uncle a couple Christmas’s ago concerning the Church’s position and responsibilities within the political realm. My uncle, a priest for fifty years, was of the opinion that it was the Church’s responsibility to lobby governments to provide for the physical health and well being of their population through socialized healthcare. I responded that it seemed the modern Church was already floundering trying to provide for the spiritual well-being of its members without taking upon itself the mission of campaigning for free universal healthcare for the masses.

But, if free universal healthcare is the end toward which the Church Militant is campaigning these days perhaps its not too big of a stretch to conclude that the priest wears pink vestments to help raise awareness about breast cancer.

The Western Mans Abdication of Authority

This quote from a man whose daughter was seriously injured while skydiving, perfectly captures all that is wrong with the American father in our feminized society. Despite giving his daughter permission to jump and actually going up and jumping with her Mr. Wethington believes that somebody should have said no. Just not him.

“I don’t think she should have been allowed at 16 to go up there and perform that type of jump, no matter what I say or she says, she shouldn’t have been allowed,” Joe Wethington said at the news conference. “I find it very hard to believe that the rules and regulations in Oklahoma are that lax. I think there is a flaw there somewhere, and I don’t think it’s through the state of Oklahoma. I think it’s the company. I’m not sure.”

I find it very disturbing that a fathers sense of responsibility for his daughters safety and well-being is that lax. The flaw that is “there somewhere” can be found in your complete abdication of authority as head of your household. It isn’t the state, it isn’t the company, it’s you. Own it.

Here’s the article, http://news.msn.com/us/texas-girl-survives-3000-foot-skydiving-fall