A weird little rabbit hole leads me to this: there seem to be a lot of people who imagine they can treat what other people say as a sort of modeling clay out of which they can fashion anything they like, and then attribute their own newly-form idea back to the original author. I’m reminded that I need to reread a bunch of walker Percy, and of this exchange from Love in the Ruins, between Dr. Tom More and Dr. Buddy Brown. Background: an old man, Mr. Ives, has been consigned to an scientific old folks’ facility where Brown and More work. More knows Ives is possibly the only sane person in the building and refuses to speak because there’s no point to it, and would send him home; Brown want to send Ives off for what amounts to euthanasia. They are to face off in The Pit, a sort of amphitheater/examine room, and argue for their diagnoses.
“Tom, you and I don’t disagree,” says Buddy in an earnest, friendly voice.
“It’s the quality of life that counts.”
“And the right of the individual to control his own body.”
“And above all a man’s sacred right to choose his own destiny and realize his own potential.”
“Would you let your own mother suffer?”
“I don’t believe you. I know you too well and know that you place a supreme importance on human values.”
“We believe in the same things, differing only in the best way to achieve them.”
“See you in the Pit!”
More and Brown disagree on everything, but Brown, using words More would use but with polar opposite meanings, tries to convince him they agree. This is, as becomes apparent later in the story, very nearly diabolical.
What reminded me of this today was reading a follower of Dorthy Day mention approvingly Paolo Freire’s radicalism. He read Freire’s radicalism as somehow equivalent with Day’s. I know next to nothing about Day, but nothing in the little I do know suggests she was foolish enough to consider a Marxist’s use of the word radical to mean a return to and embrace of Christian roots. Be that as it may, any reading of Freire where you take him at his word and read him in the context of the Critical Theory of which he was a major proponent would make one conclude he is as virulently anti-Catholic as any other sincere Marxist.
But he was such a nice man! Teaching, as he did, that rights are dependent on how thoroughly one embraces the Revolution – reject it, and voila! All your rights are gone. Take your stuff, lock you up, reeducate you, kill you – all on the table for Freire. He also says that if a worker beats his wife, it’s not his fault, because the real violence is in the system that oppresses him. Great comfort to his wife, I’m sure. The only solution is revolution, the complete overthrow of the system. Only an unenlightened reactionary would suggest that maybe the man shouldn’t beat his wife regardless of how his day at work went.
Anyway, this problem is ubiquitous, perhaps even as ubiquitous as its flip-side, reading everybody on the other side (however defined) as being incoherent idiots regardless of what they actually say. But hey, if you take the Critical Theorists seriously, words have no meaning, things can both be and not be at the same time and in the same way, and it’s all a social construct, man – and we’re back to where we started.
Brief update before this unrelated post: revised, and revised again, the outline for the proposed book on Catholic education, and began to revise and expand the bibliography. There are maybe 20 core books, and 2-3 times that in more peripheral stuff. Yikes – what have I gotten into? Both the outline and the bibliography will become permanent pages on this blog, to be updated and revised as I progress. But let’s talk about movies as propaganda first:
Maybe my overactive imagination is getting off leash again. Maybe not.
A few years back, I made a few comments on the movie Lincolnhere and here. At the time, while bending over backwards to give the man Lincoln every benefit of the doubt in a horrible and horribly complex situation, I complained:
Certainly, Lincoln was in a tough spot no matter which way we slice it. And, since we all seem to agree with his gut feelings about what is right, we tend to overlook how dubious his logic is in many places. The important thing, we say, is Justice: slavery was such an overwhelming injustice screaming out to Heaven that Lincoln – or any man – is justified in whatever he may do to end it. As the speech above suggests, Lincoln would ‘catch at the opportunity’ even if the mechanism by which he justifies his actions are questionable.
In the hands of a man of deep morals and honor such as Lincoln, perhaps we can hope the powers seized will be used only for good, or at least only toward some ultimate good like ending slavery. But the same concepts, having shed the rhetorical splendor Lincoln vested them in, lurk in the claim: “We can’t wait for Congress to do its job, so where they won’t act, I will.” This is the anthem of the rule of men, not law.
That quote within the quote above is, of course, from Obama, who was sworn in on Lincoln’s personal Bible. (1) This movie came out just as he began his second term, during which, in continuation of the precedent established during his first term, he routinely ruled by executive order. Funny timing, huh?
The entire movie is about the four months leading up to the passage of the 13th Amendment on January 31, 1865. Historians evidently refute much of what is presented as Lincoln’s motivation in the movie, where he is shown as desperate to get the 13th Amendment passed in order to ensure the end of slavery once fighting had ended. The Emancipation Proclamation was just an expedient enacted under the President’s war powers, and could, the movie states, be reversed once the South surrenders. So, Lincoln had to do whatever he had to do to get the Amendment passed, including a bunch of stuff that, if the end did not justify all means, would be considered patently immoral and illegal.
But Lincoln is a secular saint, and it all worked out, right? So no harm no foul. Everybody wants to think the evils to be addressed are just like slavery, obvious and vile, and that the guy who violates law, morals, and all propriety to right them is another Lincoln – like Obama, right? It doesn’t even occur to them that he might be more along the lines of the H-man, or even just a Franco, or a Pinochet handing out free helicopter rides. Unlike Messiah-O, those three guys DID face situations as desperate or worse than what Lincoln faced, and did take action to right the wrongs as they saw them. Yet, we very correctly have our reservations, to say the least, about not just their methods, but – and this is critical – their assessments of the problems and required solutions. But I don’t suppose a movie about a well-intentioned hero trying to do the right thing by making a mockery of law and morals, killing people and blowing stuff up along the way, only to have everything turn out just as his opponents warned him would, leading to a situation much worse than where he started, would sell many tickets.
I’d go see it.
The framing stories are of Lincoln’s disregard for the law when it was, in his sole judgement, antithetical to justice. He tells this story in the movie:
Back when I rode the legal circuit in Illinois I defended a woman from Metamora named Melissa Goings, 77 years old, they said she murdered her husband; he was 83. He was choking her; and, uh, she grabbed ahold of a stick of firewood and fractured his skull, ‘n he died. In his will he wrote “I expect she has killed me. If I get over it, I will have revenge.” No one was keen to see her convicted, he was that kind of husband. I asked the prosecuting attorney if I might have a short conference with my client. And she and I went into a room in the courthouse, but I alone emerged. The window in the room was found to be wide open. It was believed the old lady may have climbed out of it. I told the bailiff right before I left her in the room she asked me where she could get a good drink of water, and I told her Tennessee. Mrs. Goings was seen no more in Metamora. Enough justice had been done; they even forgave the bondsman her bail.
(Aside: I observed a similar coincidence when the NYT published an article defending and even praising Tammany Hall for its “honest graft” right around the time a few hints that not all Obama-era actions were strictly speaking composed entirely of sweetness and light. Thugs beating up people and holding the government for ransom are OK, the Times informs us, so long as it makes sure every Paddy get a job as a cop right off the boat – even if it’s some other Paddy that gets beaten up. Well, logic has never been the Left’s strong suit.)
In my extremely fruitful efforts to waste yet more time, I watched the trailer for the latest installment in the very successful Kingsmen franchise, of which I have seen none and have no intention of seeing any. In it, the Kingsmen are explained: “We are the first independent intelligence agency” and “preserving peace and protecting life” and “While governments wait for orders, our people take action.”
Hmmm. Now, while the vigilante theme is as old as comic books and The Shadow, this takes it to a new level: a CIA-like (intelligence agency, remember?) group of spies who answers to no government, but takes action to preserve the peace and protect lives by blowing things up and killing people, it would seem. Of course, it fun and British and all that, but the underlying concept – that the people who protect life and preserve peace can’t be beholden to any government – seems, I don’t know, strangely appealing to certain groups just at this particular moment in history.
“Reputation is what people think of you. Character is who you are.” The CIA and its punk little brother the FBI, long having enjoyed the reputation among the non-comatose as, effectively, evil little empires with all the morality and respect for authority of J. Edgar Hoover, are now being framed up as the last, best hope of saving us all from Trump and The End of the World as We Know It ™ (see Severian’s latest for a terrifying yet humorous take on this). Just now, we get a series of movies based on the premise that we need saving and can’t wait for governments to do it! But our freshly scrubbed and loyal and patriotic ‘intelligence community’ can save us! Never let a crisis go to waste!
In the comments a couple posts back, regular commenter Richard A said I should finish the nonfiction books I’ve sort of started. This is fair. So, to recap what I hope to accomplish: for many years now, I’ve wanted to address my despair over Catholic education in this country, and suggest (too mild a term) steps needed to free ourselves from this unholy thralldom to education theories and practices that are not only not Catholic, but were designed specifically to destroy the influence of Church and family on the formation of children.
In my mind, this would take the form of 2 books, which would then form the backbone of efforts to get invited to conferences, get interviewed, and whatever other forms of publicity needed to get these ideas out there.
Book 1: the popular plea. This would be a shorter, less academic book intended to be read by anybody interested in Catholic education. It would include more stories and examples, less history and quotations. It still needs to undermine the foundations of the wretched graded classroom model, and sow the seeds of a truly Catholic education model, where child, Church and family work together to put children on the road to their own unique God-given sanctity. A Catholic education should equip every child to defend the Truth and rebuild the culture (an eternal task given to every generation). It might, for example, tell the story of the early Spanish schools in Texas, as an example of how others have tried to address these issues and of a radically different model, but would not include too much detail on the evolution and promulgation of that particular model.
The goal of Book 1: to help people realize that, for Catholics, rejecting the age-graded, teacher-dominated, regurgitation model is the essential 1st step toward any Catholic education worthy of the name. I’d then present (generally much milder) criticisms of other models, and suggest alternatives, and end with a description of what I’ll call the Oratory-style Catholic school I’d like to see.
Book 2: the bomb. This book would attempt to simply detonate all the assumptions behind modern schooling, from a Catholic perspective. I’d go through each of the founding lights of modern education, from the Spartans through the ephebia, the ‘schools’ of Athens and Alexandria, on to the monasteries, the universities, Luther’s suggestion the the state seize the monasteries and turn them into compulsory schools, to Pestalozzi, Fichte, the various English schools, Dickens’ Hard Times, then on through Mann, Barnard, Cubberley, and Harris, etc.. Then on through the Catholic parish school movements, and Burns and the people at Catholic U, and Bishop Ireland and the runs-ins caused by his endorsement of public schools, the encyclicals against Modernism, discussion of Modernism and the heresy of American Catholicism (versus a Catholicism that happens to be in America), and the near-desperate desire of immigrants to be seen as good Americans and the dolorous effects this desire produced, and the persecuted Germans fleeing to America and bringing their Prussian model school system with them.
Then outline the ongoing efforts to make Catholic schools illegal, or, failing that, to put them effectively at the mercy of the state (the first failed, so far, but the second is where we are today: states will start mandating transgender sex ed, and the legal framework is in place to force Catholic schools to implement it).
Somewhere in there would be a discussion of ‘scientific’ education practices, and how, in fact, there is no scientific support for the current model, and plenty of science that argues against it. (Of course, one has to state goals first – science as science doesn’t have any goals.)
The goal of this book would simply be to provide the background detail needed to buttress the arguments in the first book.
I’ve drafted a few chapters here and there. Some of the posts on this blog are approximately rough drafts of some. But I need to get much more organized.
I need to do some outlining somewhere. Why not here? Rough draft:
Book 1: Let the Little Children Come: Towards More Catholic Schoolings
Intro: “Let the little children come to Me”
Christ is attractive: ‘let,’ not ‘make,’ the little children come.
The goal of Catholic education is not different from the goal of Catholic life: Everything flows from and is directed toward the Eucharist.
We educate our children to be more fully members of the Body of Christ;
Catholic education is not job training. Being ‘productive members of society’ is not primary – our God-given value is much more fundamental than our ability to produce, and does not depend on it.
Thus, a Catholic school and the education it provides will allow children to be welcomed by Jesus, be directed toward and flow from the Eucharist, and will see in each child as a unique child of God apart from and prior to anything they can do.
Catholic education will necessarily reject anything that interferes with any of the above.
Chapter 1: The State of Affairs
Where our current system comes from
What our current system is designed to do, in the words of the people who built it.
Our parish schools built in response to the blatant and relentless anti-Catholicism of the public schools
How the Church won battles and lost the war.
Chapter 2: Educational traditions other than the age-segregated graded classroom (touching very lightly)
The Greek ‘schools’ – Plato, Aristotle, the schools of Alexandria
The Great Universities – the Questions method, the trivium and quadrivium.
Chapter 3: Experimentation & Bad Ideas
Sparta & the Republic
Chapter 4: The Modernist Foundation
Von Humboldt & the Prussian Models
Horace Mann & the American Dilettante Invasion of Prussia
Back Rooms and the Establishment of State Education Departments
The Killing of the One Room Schools
The Frankfurt School & Critical Theory
Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed
The Mask has been dropped – this whole system must be rejected
Chapter 5: Catholic Educational Traditions
St. Jerome’s advice to a woman asking how best to educate her daughter
Waves of Sisters & the Parish School
Observation: education of the orphaned and abandoned child is different than education a child as part of a family: the former must provide the structure present in the latter before education can take place.
(Let’s try something completely different. For me, at least. I have no idea what I’m doing here…)
“We need 11 seconds.”
No, he thought, you don’t need anything. You want me to murder a little girl.
Part of the Plan was that he, Vlad Alexander, knew only very little of the Plan. It was also probable that most of what he ‘knew’ was incorrect. He operated in a gray area straddling the cyber and human domains. Somewhere, other people knew some aspects of the Plan as it concerned their expertise in the air, land, sea, and space domains, little pieces of truth mixed with nonsense. They had all been trained to execute baffling assignments that meant nothing to them.
Vlad Alexander did not want to murder a little girl. The only reason he had been given was that the murder, executed in precisely the manner and at exactly the specified time, would buy 11 critical seconds for the Plan. Perhaps it was telling that Ops had broken, if not protocol, certainly tradition, to tell him anything at all. Why had they done that? They certainly knew he would notice.
He was aware of things, some dimly, some crystal clear, that he might be better off not knowing. He had spent years training to see and use information, how it was obtained, stored, analyzed, disseminated, and used as a weapon. He had also spent years learning how people react to information. Sometimes, the right message delivered in the right way to the right people in the right order could be more devastating than a large-scale military attack. When an executive, say, bursts out of his office to see terrified looks on his office staff, or calls home only to hear his wife scared out of her wits, he is a much softer target, much more manipulatable, than if he thinks he knows a terrible secret he is protecting his people from. Sometimes, you need a riot to make a point, to shorten the decision window, to compel the right people to make the move you want.
Vlad Alexander arranged such panics, surprises and riots.
One thing Vlad Alexander knew was that his superiors in Ops viewed him as part of the information domain he was trained to use. Another thing he knew was that his emotional landscape, his loves and hates and predilections, were part of the human domain those same superiors used him to weaponize.
Ops had laid out the outline of a plan, leaving all details to Vlad. Vlad was more an expert on these things than his superiors. They knew that as well. When they ordered him to kill a little girl, they had a very good idea how he would react.
Vlad Alexander very much did not wish to kill a little girl.
Great composers generally use the second most likely device, familiar yet unexpected. The first time through, a work should sound surprising; subsequent hearings sound inevitable.
They would expect him to prepare. Vlad called Enrique, using a first level secure channel. A first level channel has almost certainly been hacked, meaning Vlad’s message could not appear critical or even coherent to third parties. Or that the message was intended to be heard by third parties.
“Hey, man, let’s grab a beer, catch up a little.” Vlad’s voice was even.
“Sure, man.” Enrique’s voice was equally bland. “The usual place? 5:00?”
“Can we do 4:00?”
“Man, I gotta work to 5:00. Maybe 4:30?”
“Make it 4:00, and I’ll make it worth your while.”
“Oooo-kay.” A slight hesitation. “I’ll see you at 4:00.”
Calling Enrique would be slightly unexpected, but well within normal parameters. Vlad headed out to the nonexistent usual place. He stopped at Sven’s Scandinavian Pastries on Wabash, under the elevated tracks. A Chinese man peered at him from over the display case in the tiny shop. “Hey, Gustav. Long time.”
“Week before last Wednesday.” The Chinese Gustav eyed him with a slight frown. “I’m not sure you’re being sufficiently discrete.”
“Can I use your restroom?”
“I’ll take a spandauer.” Gustav nodded, threw him a key and looked towards a curtained doorway.
Vlad unlocked a narrow door, and eased himself in. Opposite the toilet was another door. After locking that door behind him, Vlad sat in the one chair in front of what looked like a stack of vintage stereo equipment. He put on headphones and pulled from his jacket pocket a small plastic rectangle with a rat tail ending in a 1/4″ plug.
Helene Sachiko Bernatone watched the stray cats play and beg from her perch on a stone bench in the Boboli Gardens. The early fall sun was about to touch the treetops to the left of the Pitti Palace. Takashi should be arriving in a moment to take her to ballet lessons. Alone, she was nevertheless fearless. Hidden eyes watched her; hidden eyes watched everyone.
10 hours earlier, Vlad Alexander had popped out of existence. This was not usual for this stage of such assignments, but within the realm of reasonable. 11 hours. It was difficult, for someone who didn’t exist, to get from Chicago to Florence in 11 hours. He caused an airplane to pop out of existence, as far as anyone in Ops could tell.
Cameras, sensors, and satellites saw nothing when he covered the 50 meters from the hanger to the Tupolev TU-444. His presence did not register with the pilot, or any of the on-board systems. The plane was heading to Peretola, although he was the only one on board to know it. The Tupolev was outfitted in communication gear; with the help of Enrique, Gustav and 2 more contacts upon which he had bet his life, that communication gear had been taken off-off-grid.
Almost all comm traffic was machine-to-machine. Speaking from the system’s perspective, data was data, and humans were towering roadblocks to speed and efficiency. The Tupolev’s systems would give the other systems plenty of busywork. Vlad Alexander intended to keep the humans in the system busy as well. He knew about them what he knew about anyone he studied: their emotional landscapes, their loves and hates and predilections. He needed to keep them entertained for another 10 hours.
Vlad Alexander sure hoped Enrique had gotten the message. He hoped his contacts were what they seemed to be, but, again, seeing people for what they are is what he did, or a big part of it, at least. He got to work.
Helene had taken note of Takashi’s tardiness, but remained calm. Then she saw him walking briskly up the hill. He gave Helene a slight bow, and took her hand. “Miss Bernatone, your father has requested you to accompany me on an adventure. Will you please follow me?”
They proceeded together up the hill toward the Forte di Belvedere, a slight Japanese man and slender girl of 9. He touched his watch and ventured a slight look around. “The Medici, who constructed this garden and built this fort, were very much experts at subterfuge and secrecy, even by the standards of the Renaissance.” Takashi often filled their time together with little history lessons, which Helene generally enjoyed. He did not look nor act like Helene’s idea of a ninja, which is what the daughter of Chef had whispered her mother had told her he was. But wasn’t that exactly like a ninja? The Medici were not the only masters of subterfuge and secrecy.
The Tupolev landed without any notice taken by the Peretola tower. It taxied to a building off main runway, stopping just long enough for Vlad Alexander to deplane, and then took off again.
Inside the building stood three men. “Signor Bernatone sends his greetings,” said a large man in an apron, who looked like he’d just stepped away from making some porcetto. Which, given this topsy-turvy world, he just might have. “And his gratitude.” Vlad nodded. He hoped this gratitude would extend to keeping him alive and invisible for a few decades. He was now Out. The only question was if he were dead Out, or alive Out. The first was routine and often unexpected. The second was, by the nature of things, unheard of.
Enrique and Gustav had, of course, never explained their exit plans to Vlad; neither, of course, had the two others whose names he prudently didn’t know. He sure hoped they made it. He himself was at the mercy of Signor Bernatone. He knew his emotional landscape, his loves and hates and predilections. He had sorted them out from the purposeful and expert chaff meant to hide them. If Vlad Alexander had done his work well, Signor Bernatone was not the sort of man to kill a man who saved his daughter.
“I thought they built this for the view.” They had reached the top of the hill, and the tremendous panorama of Florence it provided. Takashi answered, “From here, the Medici Dukes could observe their offices at the Uffizi and the Palazzo Vecchio, the Pitti Palace and all roads leading into Florence. Forte di Belvedere is a difficult place to sneak up on.” Helene was listening while her eyes soaked up the landscape in the fading autumn light.
They stood atop the point of one of the fortifications. A flicker, a subtle change in light, on the edge of perception such that you were not sure in the next moment that it had happened, radiated out across the landscape from where they stood. An utterly still moment passed. A light drizzle of what appeared to be insects and birds fell to the ground from trees and building facades, followed a moment later by a half dozen small drones in quick succession falling from the sky.
Takashi scanned the horizon without expression, and continued. “The Medici also put in various escapes and hidey-holes, ambushes and traps. From the time of Cosmo the Great, who had his grandson murdered in the Duomo, the family has taken steps.” He turned and took both her hands. “Your father, although only distantly related, has inherited their caution as well as much of their former empire.”
City lights which had just begun to illuminate the ancient city flickered then grew dark. An unearthly quiet, as if the trees themselves had paused to listen, veiled the city. Takashi whispered, “Follow me.”
A. For those who have served honorably in our military: thank you, from the bottom of my heart. I am well aware that it is only an accident of timing that kept me out of Vietnam (still going when I got to high school, ended, after a fashion, before I turned 18). My father spent WWII as a crack welder on the home front; some of his and my mother’s brothers did fight, but were of a generation where, mostly, it was not something you talked about much. My aunt Verna was Rosie the Riveter, complete with models and photos of the planes she help build – that she never talked about. I only found out from my cousins after she died. Uncle Louis did something with the Air Force in Korea, but all I ever heard about was his time as a voice on military radio – he had a very deep and beautiful speaking voice, bet he was good.
My father in law, may he rest in peace, got in in time for the invasion of Italy. About the only story he told was of cataloguing the weapons the Allies seized: he was struck with how beautiful Italian machine guns were, especially compared to German machine guns: scroll work, a sense of proportion. But there was no question which one you’d want to be holding if you needed to kill somebody.
He was also helped liberate some Nazi death camps. This, he never spoke of, except to tell of the dancing. Because he grew up in and near various ethnic neighborhoods in Chicago, he knew all sorts of ethnic dances. He was an incredible dancer. So, when the prisoners were freed, they – any who were strong enough – danced. And he joined in.
He paid a terrible price, even if he never, as far as I know (and I doubt I or anyone does know), had to shoot at anyone or see his buddies die before his eyes. He saw unfathomable evil up front and personal. His mother said he went to war a happy-go-lucky boy and came back a serious and sad man.
So, thank you, veterans! God bless you. And may He grant eternal rest to those who have died.
B. Read something about the comparative capabilities of American versus British WWII bombers, specifically, the B-17 and the Lancaster, which were the workhorse Allied bombers in the European theater. What was most interesting to me: the American bomber had a bigger crew and more guns, and included armour around all the crew positions. As a result, a B-17 generally carried about half the weight in bombs that a Lancaster carried, having instead invested that weight in guns and armour to defend the aircraft and its crew. The Lancaster had fewer guns and no armour protecting the crew, except the pilot – who was generally the only officer on board. But it typically carried about twice the tonnage of bombs as the B-17.
B-17s flew high and during the day; Lancasters flew lower during the night. The Americans targeted specific buildings and installations, while the British targeted cities. Once the P-51 Mustangs came on-line in force, the B-17s had really good fighter escorts. The net results: B-17s, partly because they bombed during the day and partly because they flew above where flak could reliably hit them, and because they had swarms of Mustangs with them to keep the (very, very good) Luftwaffe fighters at bay, reliably hit their targets. The British, flying at night to compensate for their comparative lack of altitude and defences, targeted ENTIRE CITIES because anything smaller was all but impossible to find and hit. Their success rate was comparable to the Americans, but only because their targets were an order of magnitude or 2 larger. I assume the British pilots and bombardiers were as good as the Americans, because British pilots in WWII were damn good. It is a matter of strategy formed by technical capabilities, coupled with a burning British desire to make the Third Reich pay for bombing British cities. And, boy, did they pay.
Underlying this, it seems to me, is another factor, one I ran into first years ago reading about Florence Nightingale. The attitude of the British military, it seems, is that commoners both expendable and of no great value. Nightingale found the British officers showed no concern to the point of contempt for the men dying under them, and it took her years to shame the government into starting to provide decent (for the times) medical care. But the attitude persisted: the Lancaster, and, I understand, subsequent British bombers as well, embodied this disdain: only the pilot’s position was armoured. Stray bullets or shrapnel was much more likely to kill a crewman than an officer on a British bomber. And the numbers seem to bear this out: both in absolute and percentage terms, casualties among British airmen were far higher than among Americans. Americans, I should think, would be shamed and outraged if their officers were provided protections denied to the crewmen.
C. Tidy segue: Reading Chesterton’s biography of St. Francis for our Chesterton Society reading group. In it, G.K. tells the story of how a young Francis, working for his father selling cloth in the marketplace, is interrupted by a beggar:
While he was selling velvet and fine embroideries to some solid merchant of the town a beggar came imploring alms; evidently in a somewhat tactless manner. It was a rude and simple society and there were no laws to punish a starving man for expressing his need for food, such as have been established in a more humanitarian age; and the lack of any organised police permitted such persons to pester the wealthy without any great danger. But there was I believe, in many places a local custom of the guild forbidding outsiders to interrupt a fair bargain; and it is possible that some such thing put the mendicant more than normally in the wrong. Francis had all his life a great liking for people who had been put hopelessly in the wrong. On this occasion he seems to have dealt with the double interview with rather a divided mind; certainly with distraction, possibly with irritation. Perhaps he was all the more uneasy because of the almost fastidious standard of manners that came to him quite naturally.
G.K. goes on to comment about the relationship between the rich and the poor in medieval Italy, something that, though imperfect and often ignored, is one of the great triumphs of Christianity:
Another element implied in the story, which was already partially a natural instinct, before it became supernatural ideal, was something that had never perhaps been wholly lost in those little republics of medieval Italy. It was something very puzzling to some people; something clearer as a rule to Southerners than to Northerners, and I think to Catholics than to Protestants; the quite natural assumption of the equality of men. It has nothing necessarily to do with the Franciscan love for men; on the contrary one of its merely practical tests is the equality of the duel. Perhaps a gentleman will never be fully an egalitarian until he can really quarrel with his servant. But it was an antecedent condition of the Franciscan brotherhood; and we feel it in this early and secular incident. Francis, I fancy, felt a real doubt about which he must attend to, the beggar or the merchant; and having attended to the merchant, he turned to attend the beggar; he thought of them as two men. This is a thing much more difficult to describe, in a society from which it is absent, but it was the original basis of the whole business; it was why the popular movement arose in that sort of place and that sort of man.
This, coming from an Englishman, one who clearly felt a great affinity to St. Francis. We Americans have, somehow, inherited, it seems to me, more from the South to which we did not belong than to the North from which we came. This brings to mind Lafferty’s assertion that, while our institutions come from the Romans, our hearts owe more to the Goths. But that’s getting far afield, even for me.
E. After I published that last bit of flash fiction fluff, I remembered that I had already written a very similar and, it seems to me, much better piece of fluff. Almost took the new story down – as low as my standards are, I do, in fact, have some. But then, remembering that authors (if only!) are the worst judges of their own work, I left it up.
To find the earlier piece, which at first I did not remember clearly, I needed to skim through the couple dozen pieces of flash fiction I’ve posted here. Distance, perhaps after the fashion of beer goggles, has made several of them look pretty OK. The ones that got the most comments were:
The most positive feedback on an individual story was on Random Writing: One Day… about a crusty old man who mooned a big rig from the back of his vintage motorcycle while crossing the Vicksburg Bridge. That one was a lot of fun.
But by far the most comments and positive feedback were received on the 7 parts of It Will Work – Tuesday Flash Fiction taken as a whole. I stopped the series because it stopped being flash fiction – in order to end it, I needed to think ahead more than one episode. Perhaps this was a mistake. Perhaps I need to get off my hindquarters and finish it.
But my surprise favorite at the moment is possibly Saturday Flash Fiction (12/15/18), a story about a woman seeking healing through story therapy, which, it seems to me, displays the most craft: I set it up so that the – I hope – surprise ending carried some emotional punch, and could be read on several levels. I also like how Stanford’s storytelling came out. I’ll no doubt change my opinion in the morning.
And, thus, I’m brought to the real issue here: I can write flash fiction because, like diving into cold water, I need only pluck up my courage for a moment. A short story is like swimming the Channel to me; a novel would be swimming to Hawaii. The combination of being hypercritical, needing to plan, and being a coward is leaving me with hundreds of pages of begun, half-finished, and even very nearly finished stories. Not to mention a couple non-fiction works on education I’ve left hanging.
“There’s nothing to do, and no reason to do it.” She sighed, and made a slight gesture with two fingers of her right hand, little more than a twitch of the wrist. Flat sunlight washed the broad floor before her, mots skittering in the static beams. A pale blue sky pressed down on miles of rolling, grass-covered hills beyond her balcony. She settled back into her overstuffed chair. Two ladies in waiting, hands folded inside enormous sleeves, exchanged masked glances.
A thousand miles away, a camshaft rotated 20 degrees, lifting a valve. Icy black water, as salty as blood, under the pressure of 20,000 feet of ocean, quickly filled a cylinder. The added weight pulled it down. At the other end of a rocker arm, its twin rose.
A gate, invisible in the darkness, slowly opened. Out swam Creature. It swelled and thinned, as if taking a deep breath, and undulated upward.
“Program in unpredictability.” Right. As a Technician Superior, he was allowed some leeway in his thoughts, but must still remain cautious. Best not tempt Her Ladyship. Yes, he thought, I can make it very, very hard to predict. Very hard. Nonetheless, with enough processing power and time, probabilistic predictability, at the very least, prevails. Whatever has happened, was caused. Whatever will happen, will be caused.
There are, however, some – anomalies. In the deepest recess of his mind, the tiny thought swirled into being and evanesced even as it did so: I am an anomaly.
The Technician Superior modified the Scenario. He dared not think how.
Creature devoured a large wooden fishing boat near the coast. It opened its massive jaws, and in a moment silenced the screams of 50 fishermen. Foam and eddies marked the spot, and soon vanished. The villagers on the shore hid the best they could.
The two ladies in waiting wore mental facades as artificial as their porcelain masks. Her Ladyship could, if she wished, lay their minds bare, and punish them in a way that would make them envy the dead. The surfaces of their minds, therefore, were kept as calm and expressionless as the bone white of their ‘faces.’
Creature came ashore. The stretch of coastline was mostly uninhabited. Casualties were light. The villages destroyed would be rebuilt again.
Her Ladyship viewed the scene from her balcony, and gave her head a slight shake. “Lacks drama,” she sighed. “Someone should stand and fight – it’s a better look.” She turned, passed between her ladies in waiting, and resumed her seat.
Creature slithered across the landscape. Its course ran through open countryside; it encountered no doomed heros to devour, no churches or halls to destroy.
The Technician Superior, in a whispered corner of his mind, prepared to die. He did not dare wish it would be quick. The ladies in waiting did likewise, but for different reasons.
Creature approached the balcony. Its claws gripped the ballestrade, and pulled it loose. Its head rose to look inside.
The ladies in waiting finally surrendered to terror, screamed, yet remained at their lady’s side. Even in terror, they knew the punishment for fleeing was far worse than merely being eaten alive. They had been trained. They were part of the Scenario.
Creature turned it massive head sideways, the better to snap up an upright woman, and lunged across the wide stone floor toward the handmaid on the Lady’s left hand side, its head scraping the vaulted ceiling.
Rockets roared and metal clanged. A white-hot rod suddenly pinned creatures head to the floor. Pierced through the brain, its massive body, trailing off the balcony, twitched. A giant in power armour landed beside Creature, and dropped to one knee and bowed before Her Ladyship.
She was not happy. “You’re not supposed to save her,” she gestured toward the handmaid to her left. She shook her head. “This was not – satisfying.” Her Ladyship’s thoughts wandered back to her youth, when, upon being saved, a thrill like electricity had passed through her body and desire for her knight had filled her with passion. That had not happened in many years, although she had gone through the motions with any number of knights, until they had disappointed her and been disposed of.
“Evidently,” she spoke to no one, “We need a new Knight. And a new Technician Superior.” She looked up at the knight, who still knelt before her. “Well? Go.” She waved him away. “Await your fate.” She opened her palms to the ceiling and rolled her eyes. “You have killed the monster.”
The knight’s visor opened, his hand gripped another tungsten rod, and he looked up at her. “Not yet.”
Yesterday, the family travelled to Napa to hear a talk by Joseph Pearce at Kolbe Academy. Very charming man. He has lead an interesting life, an English ex-pat, and another convert to Catholicism from atheism, and a former racist nationalist (although he got over it in his mid-20’s, so it pretty much qualifies as youthful folly). He’s another man who read his way to Catholicism, with the indispensable help of kind believers along the way.
Second, got to go to a beautiful All Soul’s Day mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco, celebrated by Archbishop Cordileone. The Benedict 16 Choir (ha!) sang Duarte Lobo’s Missa pro defunctis. I was not familiar with Lobo, but he is a Portuguese composer, a somewhat younger contemporary of Victoria and a master of polyphony. By the time he died, he was a throwback, writing ‘old’ music when Baroque had just become ascendant.
Our beloved archbishop vested in black, as did the 2 priests and 3 deacons with him. He celebrated the Ordinary Form in English ad orientem – a rather unusual combination in my experience.
Very beautiful and moving, despite the limitations (not conducive to a capella singing) and quirks (weirdly laid out sanctuary that often requires acolytes and deacons to be stationed 50 feet away from the altar) of the Cathedral building. The only sad part is that only a few hundred people showed up, which in a building that large looks like nobody. Perhaps if they keep this up for a few years, the crowds will grow.
Job hunt is not going anywhere at the moment.
My poor daughters! Eldest is now at the hospital with her fiance, who came down with some sort of GI problem that caused enough pain and dehydration that he is hospitalized. Please pray for a quick and complete recovery, so that they can prepare for their wedding in joy.