May 17 2017

Christopher Landrum: the Pretend Priest

Christopher Landrum: the Pretend Priest

Part I: Confessions

I have a confession to make: I am no priest, but I receive confessions from others.

I hear confessions from Dale Dudley (a socially liberal, economically conservative radio talk show host in Austin who broadcasts over 30 hours a week on KLBJ fm and KLBJ am). I also daily read confessions from Rod Dreher (a socially conservative, economically liberal (?) writer from Baton Rouge who blogs at least 10 posts a week at The American Conservative).

Like me, they are Southern white men. Unlike me, Dudley is a victim of sexual abuse and religious shame who grew up in east Texas; Dreher is a victim of a bureaucratic resistance to the sexual abuse scandal of the late twentieth-century Catholic Church and grew up in southern Louisiana. But they talk/write about every anxiety/excitement/crisis/joy in their lives on a daily basis. They cannot help but confess.

Although, I recently pretended to be a priest at a Renaissance festival, I generally hate the fake. I don’t want to be an actual priest. I don’t want to be a monk. I want to drink the beer, not brew it as a friar might.

Name of heroes.

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Me pretending to be a priest/monk

It seems like there’s something sick about wanting to pretend to be a priest but not wanting to be an actual one. Perhaps it’s similar to Rod Dreher’s latest book The Benedict Option (2017) whereby he advocates establishing not “literal” Benedictine monasteries but analogic ones. Then what’s the difference between pretend and analogy when both actions strive to not be too literal? On this point, I feel perplexed.

Similarly, I take pretty pictures in cemeteries but I don’t pray for the dead. But also I don’t deny acknowledging the majority in the graveyard while remembering a few outliers who happen to catch my eye. Some ask only to be remembered, and not prayed for:

A unique specimen #cemetery #Dublin #catholic

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Read the Tale of Edward Duffy #Dublin #Ireland

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Part II: Citations

The nineteenth chapter of Oliver Goldsmith’s (1728–1774) Vicar of Wakefield (1766) is entitled: “The description of a person discontented with the present government, and apprehensive of the loss of our liberties,” and involves a butler pretending to be the master of the house who wants to argue with his guests about politics. This chapter has the wonderful phrase “apprehensions of my own absurdity,” which may aptly describe my anxieties about pretending to be a priest.

250 years after Goldsmith, George Costanza just wanted to pretend to be an architect:

Aristotle points out in the fourth chapter of the Poetics, humans are imitative creatures, but Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) (who is almost always right) says: “The first duty in life is to be as artificial as possible.  What the second duty is no one has as yet discovered.”

After readings some bits by Alasdair MacIntyre, I wonder: is such pretending part of the lost art and effectiveness of argument? Do we pretend because we can no longer argue with anyone about anything? Or perhaps we have lost only affirmative arguments; because negative arguments still hold strong. Modern moral philosophy, according to MacIntyre, defines itself for what it is not, not for anything it might be.[1]

Is my pretending to be a priest an example of seeking the sacred?––a search for some lost community as mentioned in Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age? Do I seek to understand the abstract concept of “community” because I feel like most tangible examples of it have been lost? Or is it something along the lines of what Baylor University’s Alan Jacobs wrote the other day about how part of being in a world that doesn’t feel human is to pretend to be human—and what is more human than being religious?

Anthropocene describes what we are doing to our environment, while posthuman is largely phenomenological, a condensed articulation of what it’s like to live in a world where we are constantly making and remaking ourselves, especially via biotechnology. And surely there is some truth in these points, but I want to suggest that the apparent disjunction obscures a deeper unity. A world in which we remake our environment and ourselves is a world that does not feel human to us. We do not know how to play the role of gods, and on some level perceive that to act as gods is to betray our nature.

NOTES

[1] MacIntyre Alasdair. “Why is the Search for the Foundations of Ethics So Frustrating?” The Hastings Center Report. Vol. 9. No. 4 (August 1978.) 16–22 at 17.


Jul 21 2016

Rereading Ruthie Leming – Part I: Tattoos & Taboos

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Just yesterday in trendy-all-too-trendy Austin, Texas lived and labored the world’s greatest tattoo artist: Homer Milton. He was as blind as the bats reverse-perched under the downtown bridge, but his work was known throughout the world, even among Japan’s Yakuza.

One day Milton could hear cane taps and paw patter outside the store door. A client entered the tattoo parlor covered from top to toe in ink and design. In one hand was a retractable cane; the other, the leash to a docile Rottweiler. His name was Dick McKeon and he was as blind as the mice in Longhorn Cavern. He was a white man who no longer looked white because of the overlap and intricacies and intersections of symbols, numbers, icons, and forms sprawled over his skin. It was as though he were permanently clothed in every tattoo conceivable, where the diversity of one only dithered another.

McKeon: Sir, today I wish to inquire about acquiring a new tattoo. Something to remind me of the joy of good old days.

Milton: I remember someone reading to me a long time ago that the common joy of the soul is the foundation of genuine community.[1]

McKeon: Right, I want a tattoo that will remind me of the common joy created when cheering for local sports teams––cheering for victory!

Milton: You remind me of when and why I quit baseball as a child. It wasn’t because of the winning or the losing or the cheating or the bruising. It was because of everyone else’s parents, the mob rule of the crowd. I remember I quit baseball because I’d rather have gone fishing and taken a dip in the river than deal with the rabble.

McKeon: Well, it sounds like you tried to escape both the conformity of childhood teamwork as well as the herd mentality of the helicopter parents of your fellow players.

Milton. I tried to escape, but successfully failed. For, “wherever a man goes, men will pursue and paw him with their dirty institutions.” [2]

McKeon: I’m impressed with your quotation but regret its lack of trendiness. You should be reading newer works that express the old ideas. Like the other day I was listening to this book called The Little Way of Ruthie Leming (2013). Ruthie’s friends would go to the river to escape from small-town parentage:

During her junior year Ruthie’s crowd began hanging out at the river, where they could build bonfires and drink beer without adults hassling them.[3]

The river at Starhill was (and probably still is) a place to congregate, a place of sociological sifting of wheat from chaff.

Milton: I know what you mean. As Americans we know this scene inside and out. It’s well portrayed in films like American Graffiti (1973) and Austin’s own Dazed and Confused (1993). We know it not because it’s cliché but because it’s so essential to our own understanding of ourselves within our own culture.

McKeon: While Ruthie’s friends tried to temporarily escape from their parents, her brother Rod tried to permanently escape the entire town:

The intolerance, the social conformity, the cliquishness, the bullying. At sixteen this is what I thought small-town life was and always would be. There, on the far side of the river, was the rest of my life, straight ahead. I had no intention of looking back.[4]

Milton: Yeah, but every army needs a system of rank and can’t survive without one. But you’re right. Rod tried, but we suffer no escape. None for me with baseball back then. None for Rod or Ruthie or her friends. None even for small town folks of last century. They could not escape the in-group/out-group resentment inherent to our anthropology. Take for instance the psychology of a small southern town found in Carson McCuller’s novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940):

The place was still now crowded—it was the hour when men who have been up all night meet those who are freshly wakened and ready to start a new day. The sleepy waitress was serving both beer and coffee. There was no noise or conversation, for each person seemed to be alone. The mutual distrust between the men who were just awakened and those who were ending a long night gave everybody a feeling of estrangement…. They shortened their thoughts so that they would not wander out into the darkness beyond tomorrow.[5]

McKeon: So whether at a river or in a café, we sell ourselves this idea that our collective feeling of shared estrangement within our communities is a new, unique twenty-first century problem. We say all the billions of people for millions of years have been inescapably trapped in history, but we in century twenty-one are exceptional because we are aware of, and attentive to, the trap itself.

Milton: But it’s unique to no one but us. Everyone from the past would find no difference between now and then.

McKeon: But difference is the key to it all.

Milton: How so?

McKeon: Well, take Dreher’s sequel to Little Way, How Dante Can Save Your Live (2015), where he talks about in the world of––indeed, the anthropology of––his small Louisiana town of Starhill, a place where anything different made for a severe taboo:

As I reported the book [Little Way], I learned from questioning my sister’s friends, her husband, and my parents more about why Ruthie held me in such disdain. It had to do with my moving away to the city; Mike said that she always felt that I belonged in Starhill, and that she took my leaving as a personal rejection. It had to do with my having tastes and beliefs she didn’t understand; for Ruthie, as for Daddy, “different” was a bad word. It had to do with her believing that I was getting away with something, being paid to write for a living instead of doing honest work. And it had to do with, well, me; even her best friend, Abby, said that she couldn’t fathom why Ruthie’s patience with everyone else was endless, but she could barely tolerate me for a moment….

And there it was. We would be held responsible for doing more and more to win the Leming children’s love, though it would be impossible to do so because of our original sin: being unlike my father, my sister, and the rest….

A thick iron gate slammed shut within me, and from behind it I regarded my father with cold contempt. He had struck me where he could do the most damage: my sense of manhood. I followed him and my sister out of the field, my face on fire, this time not with shame but with wrath. And from that moment on, I saw him not as my champion. I saw him as my adversary. [6]

Milton: You should compare Hillary Jordan’s novel Mudbound (2008) whose story is set in the same Mississippi delta region as Dreher, but about 100 years prior. In Mudbound “lend” is a taboo four-letter word.[7]

McKeon: It’s because difference is a debt owed to the community. For community equals conformity and both make up a system of checks and balances that is intolerant toward debt.

Milton: And difference is the key. The atheist anthropologist Gregory Bateson once explained why all information, including cultural information, is binary. Bateson holds that facts—in any context––are but “effective differences,” and “information consists of differences that make a difference.” The human mind “is an aggregate of interacting parts or components,” and the interaction between parts of mind is triggered by difference, and difference is a nonsubstantial phenomenon not located in space or time.”[8]

McKeon: A––“nonsubstantial phenomenon not located in time or space”––and you say the guy was an atheist?

Thus the blind tattooed the blind—both knowing exactly what they wanted—both of whose origins and orientations toward the world were completely incompatible in comparison to the other.

NOTES

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[1] Buber, Martin. Meetings: Martin Buber. Edited by Maurice Friedman. La Salle, IL: Open Court Publishing Co. 1973. p. 39.

[2] Thoreau, Henry David. Walden: or, Life in the Woods. Boston: Ticknor & Fields. 1854. “Ch. VIII – The Village.”

[3] Dreher, Rod. The Little Way of Ruthie Leming: a Small Town, and the Secret of a Good Life. NY: Grand Central Publishing. 2013. p. 28.

[4] Dreher, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming p. 19.

[5] McCullers, Carson. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. 1940. Modern Library. 1993. I, ii, p. 36; II, vii, p. 238.

[6] Dreher, Rod. How Dante Can Save Your Life: the Life-Changing Wisdom of Historys Greatest Poem. NY: Regan Arts. 2015. pp. 26, 32, 11.

[7] Jordan, Hillary. Mudbound. Algonquin Books: Chapel Hill, NC. 2008. p. 117.

[8] Bateson, Gregory. Mind and Nature. NY: E. P. Dutton. 1979. pp. 61, 81, 92, 99. Cf. Plato, Republic 521c–523b, 524e, 525a–526d.


Apr 26 2016

Adventure Italia: Day 1 of 9

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(porticos of Bologna in the wee morning hours)

After leaving Austin, Texas at 4:30 p.m. on a Saturday, we arrived in Bologna, Italy around 4:30 p.m. on Sunday. Our host Cosimo was waiting to pick us up. He lives about ten minutes from the airport, so after a short drive we were at his apartment. There we met his girlfriend Chiara and had some late afternoon snacks (almonds and spicy chip-cracker things) along with coffee.

We went out later that night, probably around 8:00 or 9:00, to meet some of Cosimo’s friends: Tosco “The Tuscan” and Giovanni, “the Yugoslavian,” who isn’t really Yugoslavian. We met them at a café on the corner of Via del Partello and Via Paradiso, just across from the Tribunale per i minorenni di Bologna (the juvenile court of Bologna). The entire length of the street of Via del Partello appeared to be located in a bar district with lots of foot traffic. The cafe served pizza and craft beer.

Tosco and Giovanni were not impressed by either the beer or the pizza. And soon enough I spilled the first half of my second beer on the last slices of pizza; so we finished our grub and moved on.

Giovanni said something like: “Texas, eh? Tony Lama boots, right?” and I replied with something like: “Yeah, those are the Gucci of cowboy boots.”

We made our way down Via del Partello for a few blocks until its intersection with Via San Rocco. Here we entered a techno music club–combination record store called Quattro Quarti (Four-by-Four).

I tried ordering a beer at the club, but it was cash only and I had yet to exchange any dollars for euros. So I thanked the bartender but declined the drink, then, about five minutes later, the bartender enters the dance floor (where I was standing, not dancing), hands me a free beer. Cosimo says: “It’s probably because you’re a tourist.”

Later at that same club we were all given a glass of champagne by one of a group of folks celebrating someone’s birthday. We were also offered a spliff outside the club, and later walking home Cosimo noted that, in terms of the crowd and enthusiasm at club Quattro Quarti, tonight was exceptionally festive.

We got home around two or three in the morning, and began a pattern of ending each evening (or morning) in Italy with a cup of tea.

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(club Quattro Quarti)

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(Vinyl from Quattro QuartiI don’t remember a suicide scene in “Rocky”)

 (Read “Adventure Italia: Day 2 of 9″ here)


Apr 23 2016

5 Interesting Things to Read

bookbread pencil shavings

5 Interesting Things to Read

German Chancellor Angela Merkel toasts 500-year-old beer purity law (Deutsche Welle)

George R. R. Martin’s Never-ending Story” by Steven Malanga (City Journal)

UT Murder Coverage Misses the Point” by Chase Hoffberger (Austin Chronicle)

Unfriendly Climate: Texas Tech’s Katharine Hayhoe is one of the most respected experts on global warming in the country. She’s also an evangelical Christian….” by Sonia Smith (Texas Monthly)

Why Dale Watson has Disavowed Country Music” by Glen Burnsilver (Phoenix New Times)

 


Oct 21 2015

Texas Hawks & Greek Omens

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That’s a broad-winged hawk, making a pit stop here at the University of Texas at Austin, probably before heading to Mexico for the winter.

In literature, particularly the Hellenic variety, bird-is-the-word, that is,  any unusual sighting or behavior of a feathered figure, was taken to be an omen for something:

[230] Then with an angry glance from beneath his brows spake to him Hector of the flashing helm: “Polydamas, this that thou sayest is no longer to my pleasure; yea, thou knowest how to devise better words than these. But if thou verily speakest thus in earnest, then of a surety have the gods themselves destroyed thy wits, [235] seeing thou biddest me forget the counsels of loud-thundering Zeus, that himself promised me and bowed his head thereto. But thou biddest us be obedient to birds long of wing, that I regard not, nor take thought thereof, whether they fare to the right, toward the Dawn and the sun, [240] or to the left toward the murky darkness. nay, for us, let us be obedient to the counsel of great Zeus, that is king over all mortals and immortals. One omen is best, to fight for one’s country. Wherefore dost thou fear war and battle? [245] For if the rest of us be slain one and all at the ships of the Argives, yet is there no fear that thou shouldest perish,—for thy heart is—not staunch in fight nor warlike.

(Homer, Iliad, (XII, 230–45) in The Iliad with an English Translation by A.T. Murray, Ph.D. in two volumes. Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1924. )

Here, Hektor’s rebuke against the interpretation of the eagle-serpent omen basically seems to say, “I have what God/Zeus told me—and because I already have it, signs and omens and interpretations thereof mean nothing.”

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The Odyssey is bookend with bird omens, beginning with Book II:

Without atonement then should ye perish within my halls.” So spoke Telemachus, and in answer Zeus, whose voice is borne afar,1 sent forth two eagles, flying from on high, from a mountain peak. For a time they flew swift as the blasts of the wind side by side with wings outspread; [150] but when they reached the middle of the many-voiced assembly, then they wheeled about, flapping their wings rapidly, and down on the heads of all they looked, and death was in their glare. Then they tore with their talons one another’s cheeks and necks on either side, and darted away to the right across the houses and the city of the men. [155] But they were seized with wonder at the birds when their eyes beheld them, and pondered in their hearts on what was to come to pass. Then among them spoke the old lord Halitherses, son of Mastor, for he surpassed all men of his day in knowledge of birds and in uttering words of fate. [160] He with good intent addressed their assembly, and spoke among them: “Hearken now to me, men of Ithaca, to the word that I shall say; and to the wooers especially do I declare and announce these things, since on them a great woe is rolling. For Odysseus shall not long be away from his friends, but even now, methinks, [165] he is near, and is sowing death and fate for these men, one and all. Aye, and to many others of us also who dwell in clear-seen Ithaca will he be a bane. But long ere that let us take thought how we may make an end of this—or rather let them of themselves make an end, for this is straightway the better course for them. [170] Not as one untried do I prophesy, but with sure knowledge. For unto Odysseus I declare that all things are fulfilled even as I told him, when the Argives embarked for Ilios and with them went Odysseus of many wiles. I declared that after suffering many ills and losing all his comrades he would come home in the twentieth year [175] unknown to all; and lo, all this is now being brought to pass.” (Homer, Odyssey, II, 150-75) The Odyssey with an English Translation by A.T. Murray, PH.D. in two volumes. Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1919.)

Then again at Book XX:

[240] Thus they spoke to one another, but the wooers meanwhile were plotting death and fate for Telemachus; howbeit there came to them a bird on their left, an eagle of lofty flight, clutching a timid dove. Then Amphinomus spoke in their assembly, and said: [245] “Friends, this plan of ours will not run to our liking, even the slaying of Telemachus; nay, let us bethink us of the feast.” (Homer, Odyssey, XX, 240-45)

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Centuries later, Plutarch imparts:

But when they set out to establish their city, a dispute at once arose concerning the site. Romulus, accordingly, built Roma Quadrata (which means square),and wished to have the city on that site; but Remus laid out a strong precinct on the Aventine hill, which was named from him Remonium, but now is called Rignarium.

Agreeing to settle their quarrel by the flight of birds of omen,1 and taking their seats on the ground apart from one another, six vultures, they say, were seen by Remus, and twice that number by Romulus. Some, however, say that whereas Remus truly saw his six, Romulus lied about his twelve, but that when Remus came to him, then he did see the twelve. Hence it is that at the present time also the Romans chiefly regard vultures when they take auguries from the flight of birds.

Herodorus Ponticus relates that Hercules also was glad to see a vulture present itself when he was upon an exploit. For it is the least harmful of all creatures, injures no grain, fruit-tree, or cattle, and lives on carrion. But it does not kill or maltreat anything that has life, and as for birds, it will not touch them even when they are dead, since they are of its own species. But eagles, owls, and hawks smite their own kind when alive, and kill them. And yet, in the words of Aeschylus:—1

How shall a bird that preys on fellow bird be clean?

Besides, other birds are, so to speak, always in our eyes, and let themselves be seen continually; but the vulture is a rare sight, and it is not easy to come upon a vulture’s young, nay, some men have been led into a strange suspicion that the birds come from some other and foreign land to visit us here, so rare and intermittent is their appearance, which soothsayers think should be true of what does not present itself naturally, nor spontaneously, but by a divine sending (Plutarch a.k.a Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus, Parallel Lives – Volume I. Translated by Bernadotte Perrin. Loeb’s: Harvard UP. 1928. 1982. “Romulus,” ix, 3–7, pp. 115–17)

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