Autumn Man Edition
Basinski's psalm for 9/11, Adam Curtis' Afghanistan, and beginning the harvest season with Our Lady of Sorrows.
This is my semi-regular review of what I’m reading and working on. No “main” essay this month; this roundup got far too long. (Apologizing for length—this is starting to feel like real letter writing.) Maybe I’ll keep it this way and publish any longer-ish things separately. Happy for any feedback one way or another.
Otherwise, welcome friend, and read on.
Reader mail. Re: last month’s discussion of pilgrimages, Friend of the Stack Matt recommends the 2015 documentary Paths of the Soul. It follows a group of Tibetan Buddhists on their journey to Lhasa—on foot, over hundreds of miles, prostrating themselves every few steps. Incredible.
Comfortable in chaos. Niamh Mulvey on the latest biography of Dorothy Day qua activist:
Perhaps her most important lesson, though, for these terrifying, paralysing times, is Day’s rejection of the notion that anything or anyone will ever be “fixed”. Maurin said of the movement he created with her: “we don’t measure our success, we don’t despair and we don’t judge.” Our shambolic life on this collapsing planet is forever in crisis; we are always, like Dorothy’s Manhattan House of Hospitality, about to fall apart.
Waking from a dream. David Graeber’s final essay, on what comes after the pandemic:
Because, in reality, the crisis we just experienced was waking from a dream, a confrontation with the actual reality of human life, which is that we are a collection of fragile beings taking care of one another, and that those who do the lion’s share of this care work that keeps us alive are overtaxed, underpaid, and daily humiliated, and that a very large proportion of the population don’t do anything at all but spin fantasies, extract rents, and generally get in the way of those who are making, fixing, moving, and transporting things, or tending to the needs of other living beings.
Let people criticize things. The always-excellent B.D. McClay on the irritating ubiquity of the “let people enjoy things” meme.
The problem with such forced, performative positivity is its simultaneously flattening and polarizing effects on culture. Art becomes merely a product to be consumed, and the consumers can’t escape being grouped, or grouping themselves, into either fans or haters. Lost are the values of detachment, analysis, judgment, contextualization. However, she also emphasizes that would-be critics must up their game and become “better snobs.” I will take this to heart.
Slackers rise up. Youths in China are recognizing the raw deal of working ever-longer hours in pursuit of ever-receding horizons. Instead they are honing the art of “tang ping”—lying flat. Dropping out. Chilling. Daddy Xi is most disappointed. We must show solidarity!
Liturgy wars. Michael Brendan Dougherty emits a primal scream on Pope Francis’ decision to place new restrictions on the celebration of the pre-1962 form of the Mass1, colloquially called the Latin Mass. In his frustration he goes too far, claiming the new Mass represents an entirely different religion. But it is true, per the ancient dictum, that lex orandi, lex credendi—as one worships, so one believes. That is, indeed, what motivates the reformers, who feel that the old forms instantiate the wrong sort of beliefs. Douthat’s more measured take points out the irony that the liturgical reformers, who since the 60s have pushed a more decentralized vision of Church governance, are now relying on the authority of the papacy to impose their preferred order.
I myself simply note the irony that the NYT opinion pages are being colonized by intra-Catholic drama; however, it is hard not to also conclude that the multi-decade wave of iconoclasm (both religious and secular) we are currently experiencing is a bleeding over of our transhumanist assumptions, the ideological substrate of techno-utopianism, which dream of getting free of the limitations of the body and the forms of the material world.
I enjoyed this exposition of the Wes Anderson aesthetic:
It clarified for me something that unites a lot of work I like, which is a certain formalism that makes the authorial presence explicit, and plays with the idea of stories within stories. This is true, for instance, of stuff as dissimilar as Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Fellini’s Otto e mezzo, Rushdie’s narrators (who often explicitly reference Scheherazade), the oral mythological traditions of the Greeks, playful anarchists like Dali and Warhol, etc. At the same time, I totally get why some people find it overbearingly twee and self-referential. We need the cinéma vérité to balance it out and cleanse our palates—though it’s important to recognize that such “realism” threatens deception precisely by concealing its authorial intentions behind an ostensibly neutral naturalism.
It’s extremely Adam Curtis-ian—that is, meandering, hyperbolic, suggestive, incoherent, frustrating—all with a great soundtrack. As other reviewers have noted, he criticizes the West for its simplistic narratives, but indulges in his own pat morality tale in which all ills can be traced back to oil politics and Saudi-stoked wahhabism. Still, the dramatization of the utter insanity of the waves of attempts to reinvent the country—American, and then Soviet, and then again American—is a good corrective to the delusions of empire. After all, the British were already fifty years past their first disaster in Afghanistan when Kipling penned his famous 1895 doggerel:
When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains,
And the women come out to cut up your remains
Just roll on your rifle and blow out your brains,
And go to your Gawd like a soldier.
One of the film’s most interesting references is to Artyom Borovik, a Soviet journalist, who describes how Russian soldiers’ experience of defeat and disillusionment was one of the many strands in the collapse of the Soviet project: “It had led them to distrust the very basis of everything they believed in, and they were taking that distrust back with them, into the heart of Russia.”
Texas Monthly appreciates William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops, which came to be accidentally but indelibly associated with the events of September 11, 2001. The struggling composer had completed the work on the morning of the 11th, and then watched the attacks unfold from his Brooklyn roof. As the name implies, the album is a physical instantiation of decay: Basinski, in the process of digitizing several decades-old tapes, noticed they were being deteriorated. But he kept going, and the result is a part-haunting part-soothing record of evaporation, descent, and dissipation:
Some hear grief and depression, isolation and end times, while others are filled with indefatigable triumph and a sense of hope. It’s mournful music that embodies the true nature of life and mortality. In his seemingly static loops, Basinski signals a deeper understanding about our world: decay is part of life, as is destruction.
A commenter (I find YouTube comments to be a wonderful swirl of insanity and poignancy; how like life) puts it better than I could have:
Thank you, Cameron.
The nation’s premier country band released a new album last month:
I’m only being half-facetious; the Killers made their name with the manic glam rock of “Mr. Brightside” et al, but their concerns have long been those of deep Americana: working class nobility and criminality, gospel ballads, drug-addled lonesomeness, family dysfunction, winding roads through wide-open country.
They got me for possession
of enough to kill
The horses that run
Free in the west hills
When I started the newsletter, I thought I would do more cooking/recipe posting. And maybe I will eventually. Living out of suitcases means my cooking is utilitarian these days. But we can still live vicariously, and for that I turn to Kate Hill, aka Kate de Camont, an American chef based at her farmhouse in southern France. Her kitchen, is, as they say, a vibe, a schmood, major #lifegoals:
I recommend her newsletter which is truly a window into a better world:
While this year’s harvest was thrown off by that deadly May frost, there is still an abundance of good fruit around to cook...Patience in cooking can be measured in seconds or minutes or even hours long. Slowly stirring jam with a wooden paddle is its own secret ingredient. Not wandering away, not reading emails. Just sitting and talking and stirring.
I came across her through Camas Davis’ book on learning butchery in France. Also highly recommended.
As I listened from a beach-chair in the shade
To all the noises that my garden made,
It seemed to me only proper that words
Should be withheld from vegetables and birds.
A robin with no Christian name ran through
The Robin-Anthem which was all it knew,
And rustling flowers for some third party waited
To say which pairs, if any, should get mated.
Not one of them was capable of lying,
There was not one which knew that it was dying
Or could have with a rhythm or a rhyme
Assumed responsibility for time.
Let them leave language to their lonely betters
Who count some days and long for certain letters;
We, too, make noises when we laugh or weep:
Words are for those with promises to keep.
—W.H. Auden, Their Lonely Betters
What I’ve been working on.
“The Writer’s Desk,” for the private collection of a noble and erudite genius (as are all my friends):
And a foray back into pastels and charcoal for figure study:
The liturgical life.
How wonderful, the relief of September: come swiftly, the wood fires and the gloomy, gusty evenings. (I embrace unabashedly my inner Autumn Man.)
It also begins the anticipation for two major feasts, the twinned All Saints and All Souls at the end of October, and the magic of the associated All Hallow’s Eve mischief. Before then, however, there are the mid-September “ember days” (the 15-18th) with which the Church has since the second century marked the beginning of the harvest season. Ember days are actually quarterly celebrations (etymologically most likely a corruption of the Latin, quatuor tempora, four times) marking the turning of each season. The ember days of summer, fall, and winter originally marked the Mediterranean harvests of wheat, grape, and olive, respectively, honoring the prime ingredients of the sacraments.
The entire month of September is also dedicated to a particular Marian title, Our Lady of Sorrows, whose feast day falls on September 15. Mary in mourning is one of the most venerated and widespread series of images across all of art history, including perhaps the most famous, Michelangelo’s Pietà, and many many others.
If any of you are facing your sorrows this month or any month, let me know (if you would like) and in any case I will have the privilege of praying for you.
In the Roman Rite, which applies to the bulk of Western Catholics; however the worldwide Catholic communion contains over a dozen other rites and families of rites, both Eastern and Western.
Luke 2: 34-35