Prohibit Everything, Make Something

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During the Prohibition the English writer G.K. Chesterton came and toured the United States, expecting to be in every way repulsed by the government suppression of alcohol. But what he found ended up delighting him—in a way. The efforts to quash drinking had driven many to the craft of homebrewing beer and setting up basement stills. As he wrote in Sidelights (available in Volume XXII of the Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton):

…with this widespread revival of the old human habit of home-brewing, much of that old human atmosphere that went with it has really reappeared… Prohibition has to that extent actually worked the good, in spite of so malignantly and murderously willing the evil. And the good is this: the restoration of legitimate praise and pride of the creative crafts of the home.

This being the case, it seems that some of our more ardent supporters might well favour a strong, simple and sweeping policy. Let Congress or Parliament pass a law not only prohibiting fermented liquor, but practically everything else. Let the Government forbid bread, beef, boots, hats and coats; let there be a law against anybody indulging in chalk, cheese, leather, linen, tools, toys, tales, pictures or newspapers. Then, it would seem by serious sociological analogy, all human families will begin vigorously to produce all these things for themselves; and the youth of the world will really return.

Chesterton was long a champion of DIY, emphasizing that doing things in the home helped realize the vocation of the family. My own family when I was growing up embraced this idea, and some of my happiest childhood memories are of days when my father made dozens of homemade bagels (first boiled, then baked), or of when my mother made taffy or egg noodles, or when my father brewed beer and took the time to also make a batch of root beer for the kids… CONTINUE READING

Encouragement

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An envelope arrived in the mail a month or so ago. I didn’t recognize the name on the return address, M. Kunin. Opening it, I realized who it was from: my father had jokingly written the name of the former governor of Vermont on the return address. Inside was a letter from 1985. In it, Governor Madeleine Kunin wrote to thank six-year-old John Herreid for his contribution to a display of children’s artwork at the state capital. She concluded with “I hope you will continue to express yourself by writing down your thoughts and by creating works of art.”

I have to admit that whatever art or story it was that was sent to the capital has been long since forgotten—I can’t remember what it may have been. But I did remember the letter, though I hadn’t known that my father saved it all these years. I remember feeling really proud of myself at the time, and wanting to spend more time than ever in working on my art.

Encouragement, both from parents and from admired figures, can be an immense boost for kids. I’ve read many testimonials from various authors and artists who cite things such as a note from a favorite author as being instrumental in starting them down the path to a career in art…. CONTINUE READING

The Divine Physician and the Doctor

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“…for when I am weak, then I am strong.”
—2 Corinthians 12:10

He’s back. My favorite recent incarnation of the alien Time Lord known as the Doctor arrived again this month, sonic screwdriver (or sunglasses) at the ready. Peter Capaldi’s portrayal of the Doctor is prickly, intelligent, standoffish, and alien in ways that harken back to the first decade of Doctor Who. It’s worth pondering that on a series fifty years old, sometimes a return to origins feels fresher than “new” directions, which often end up taking a show in the same direction all the other shows are going. In the opening two-parter The Magician’s Apprentice / The Witch’s Familiar, the Doctor once again faces Davros, the maniacal creator of the Daleks, in what may be the best use of the character since Tom Baker’s Doctor faced him when he was first introduced in Genesis of the Daleks (1975).

In these two opening episodes of the series, the Doctor is facing not only two of his oldest enemies: Davros and the Master (now regenerated into female form as the Mistress)—but also the question of whether his own weaknesses may be his ultimate downfall…. CONTINUE READING

Sigrid Undset and the Hard Case of Ida Elisabeth

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One of the most painful things in art is realism. Grotesquerie, exaggeration, wish fulfillment, romance: all of these allow a generalization of human behavior that may portray some truth, but they don’t cut to the bone in the same way that a stark portrayal of real, honest, human behavior does.

And that’s why reading Sigrid Undset hurts. Somehow, she has that rare ability to capture the essence of humanity on paper. Turning the pages of her books flenses away the protective layers of the psyche as the behavior of her characters holds up a mirror to our own faults, fears, hopes, and dreams. Reading her magnum opus Kristin Lavransdatter may leave the reader feeling as if he or she needs to stop every few pages just to calm one’s nerves.

Ida ElisabethIda Elizabeth is no different. Emotions will be triggered and tears may flow: from sadness during tragedy, from frustration in witnessing the destructive power of stubborn pride, and in watching the evaporation of ephemeral dreams that can never be.

Unlike many of Undset’s other works, Ida Elisabeth is set in the modern day: 1930s Norway. And it is because of this modern setting that Undset is able to give glimpses into distinctly modern views on marriage, society, death and life.

Much what the Church teaches on marriage today is not so much under attack as it is ignored and untaught. I can remember when my wife and I went through pre-Cana, the mandatory teaching session required by the Catholic Church before marriage, it was clear that perhaps two other couples in the group of twenty had a grasp on what marriage really is. And much of the presentation on marriage at the session tended to show Church teaching on marriage filtered through pop psychology: Catholic couples tend to be happier! According to this study, married couples who practice their religion have better sex lives! Have you heard of Natural Family Planning? It will improve your intimacy and communication, and make your marriage stronger!

What this approach tends to sidestep is that the modern understanding of marriage—that it is the formalization of a romantic commitment, nothing more and nothing less—has come into being via a steady erosion of ideals, made possible by focusing on hard cases. What about a marriage that is desperately unhappy? What about a case where the husband is unfaithful? What do we say about marriage then? It’s then that the pop psychology turns up empty and mercy seems far out of reach…. CONTINUE READING

Reading on a BART Train

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bartI recently found out that I am a “super commuter”, a term which sounds as if it should be referring to a superhero with the power to clear up traffic jams or remove odors from a bus or to perform some other such unrealistic miracle. However, it just means someone who spends 90 minutes or more commuting to work every day. My own commute is generally around three hours total: an hour and a half each way. It’s sometimes faster if I drive rather than take public transit, but I prefer my trains. I head to the BART station each morning at 5:45, transfer to MUNI light rail, and arrive at work by 7:15. At this time of the year, the station looks like a dark, eerie science-fiction set when I arrive before dawn and by the time I step into the street in San Francisco, the sunrise is beginning to burst into view, flooding angled light along the length of the street as if someone spilled a pail of sunlight.

On the ride, I read. (Sometimes I write, too. I wrote this on my phone during my commute.) I try to switch between light reading and heavier fare, sometimes reading books concurrently, as with a recent juggling between a heavy book by Hans Urs von Balthasar and a light book by Terry Pratchett.

Sometimes people will peer over my shoulder to see what I’m reading. Reading Christopher Dawson once led to a conversation with a Lutheran historian about Medieval politics in Northern England. Reading a book on Distributism caused a young political activist to jot down the author and title when a glance at a page had him nodding in agreement with a Chestertonian aphorism. Then there’s the conspiratorial nods you give to a fellow reader of authors such as Gene Wolfe or Tim Powers, followed by the question, “Which of his is your favorite?” …CONTINUE READING

“The road to Auschwitz isn’t so long…”

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From time to time people will ask me if there are any specific movies that Ignatius Press has released on DVD that I really think highly of. There are several, but there’s one of them in particular which came to mind in these past few weeks. It’s a chilling German legal thriller called After the Truth.

“Do you see at least a bit of yourself in me?” That’s the final line of the film, spoken to the viewer. The speaker is an eerie-looking bald man with a strangely compelling yet unsettling gaze. It’s Dr. Josef Mengele, played by Götz George in a performance which veers between skin-crawlingly creepy and authoritatively persuasive.

Set in the late 1990s, After the Truth follows defense attorney Peter Rohm (Kai Wiesinger), a man planning to write a biography of Josef Mengele, the infamous doctor at Auschwitz whose gruesome experiments on Jews, Roma, and other prisoners are regarded as some of the most heinous crimes ever committed. Rohm receives a “birthday” package in the mail containing a Nazi uniform. As he examines it, he realizes this is not only authentic, but that it is in fact the actual uniform worn by Dr. Mengele. Not long after, Mengele himself is speaking to the young lawyer.

What Mengele wants is simple. He wants to return to his native Germany, and he wants to be put on trial. He believes he has a persuasive defense… CONTINUE READING

The Wound that Heals

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The other day my six-year-old daughter said something very striking. I had asked my three children what kind of music they would like to listen to.  She told me that she didn’t want to listen to classical right now, and requested pop music instead.

“Why?”

“Because classic music is so beautiful and sad that I feel too much and get tears. Rock music doesn’t make me feel very much.”

The idea of a beauty that is wounding, that makes you “get tears” made me think of something I had read before, but it was a few days before I found it again…. CONTINUE READING

The Pope and the Animator

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“The aesthetic of the Pope’s reflections (on the tension between man and nature, the tendency of man to use technology to dominate others and the environment, and the ideal of an integral ecology) remind me of the films of Hayao Miyazaki. I think Miyazaki explores similar themes, although from a very different perspective.”

That’s what my wife Aletheia posted online after starting to read Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’. But how much in common do the views of a Japanese animator and an Argentinian pontiff really have? Let’s take a look.

Who is Hayao Miyazaki?

Japanese animation was regarded in the West for many years as exemplifying cheapness. To cut costs, American animation studios would outsource to Japan. A number of Saturday morning cartoons in the 1970s and 1980s were animated in this way, with fairly uninspiring storylines and pedestrian animation. One of the people who would help change all this was a young animator named Hayao Miyazaki. Cutting his teeth working on different series, he quickly rose to director status. Early work included the first half-dozen episodes of Sherlock Hound, an adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective stories recast with animals, featuring glimpses of what would become Miyazaki’s visual hallmark: inventive depictions of fantastic machinery set against a bucolic environment.

Totoro-12When Hayao Miyazaki was a small child his father ran a factory making parts for war planes, including rudders for the famed Mitsubishi Zero. The contrast between the beauty of flight and the destructive power of such weaponry seems to have made a large impact on Miyazaki’s perception of the world. A recurring theme in his animated films is how men and women are easily seduced into thinking they can control nature via technology. In Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, people try to use a genetically modified giant to eradicate a threat. In Princess Mononoke, the industrialist Lady Eboshi attempts to kill a forest spirit who threatens her ironworks. In both cases powers beyond man’s control are unleashed.

Another theme is how selfish choices have an impact beyond the individual, and how finding an adult path in life cannot come through acts of rebellion. In Ponyo (loosely based on The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen) the daughter of an underwater-dwelling sorcerer and an ocean goddess decides to become human; her impulsive actions cause a tsunami, but in reconciling with her parents balance is restored. In Spirited Away a young girl, Chihiro, goes from rebellious and sullen to responsible and resourceful as she works to free her parents from a curse. Parents aren’t off the hook either: Ponyo’s father must learn that controlling his daughter by force is not the answer. It’s a balance rarely seen in movies aimed at children… CONTINUE READING.

One Weird Trick to Appreciate Art

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“Oh, is that an allusion to the Fall?”

“The what?”

“The Fall of Adam and Eve.”

“Uh, no.”

“Is it Persephone in the underworld?”

“Who?”

It was around ten years ago. I was at an open studio event held in a huge old warehouse in the SOMA neighborhood of San Francisco. Several painters and sculptors were exhibiting their work, ranging from intentionally incomprehensible prints of layered graphics to a city made from candy to a number of rather good paintings. I was looking at one depicting a darkened landscape with a figure of a woman accepting a red fruit from a shadowy man in a robe. The artist was standing nearby, so I asked him about it. After a number of back and forth comments he shrugged and told me he had seen something similar in a painting somewhere and decided to riff on it. It wasn’t intended to be Eve’s encounter with Satan or Persephone being tricked by Hades, it was just an image that resonated with him… CONTINUE READING

Introducing Children to Art

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My daughter and oldest son have very different takes on this portrait by Raphael.

A while back I was asked for some thoughts on art, beauty, and God. A few of those comments made their way into this nice article on beauty by Anamaria Scaperlanda Biddick in Our Sunday Visitor. I’ve written here before about art and developing an enthusiasm for it, and in a general way, about introducing children to it. As I was reading the OSV article, some more concrete examples came to mind about introducing children to art.

lookingatkellsA general principle that my wife and I have tried to follow with our children: introduce art with them, not at them. By this I mean: don’t turn on some music, a movie, or toss a book of paintings at them and leave the room. Sit down with them, watch things, listen, and look. Discuss.  If they are uninterested, don’t push it. If they show an interest in some good art, cultivate that interest and find ways they can engage with it.

I don’t kid myself about my children’s native artistic taste: they are just as likely to want to watch or read something that has little to no artistic merit as they are to want to watch something good. But if introduced to great art with enthusiasm, they pick up on it pretty quickly… CONTINUE READING