Friday, December 29, 2006

Better Than In Byzantium

I'm currently reading through a three volume history by Lord John Julius Norwich. For enjoyable reading, it has plenty of everything one could want in history: wars, riots, intrigues, treachery, betrayals, palace coups, greed, debauchery, strange turns of events, strange peoples, unexplained mysteries, religious tumults, murders, mayhem, tortures, mutilations, parricides, fratricides, suicides, and regicides.

The history of the Iraq War and the Bush Administration? Hum, No.

Actually, it's Lord Norwich's Byzantium. I just finished the first volume, "The Early Centuries", and have started the second, "The Apogee". I am at the point where Basil the Macedonian, in a plot to grab the imperial Byzantine throne, has finished murdering his buddy and friend, the last dynast of the Amorians, Michael III (aka "The Sot"). Actually, Basil wasn't Macedonian but instead an Armenian; he had only lived in Macedonia for a short time, and he spoke Greek with a heavy Armenian accent.

Confusing? Well, let me put it this way: when reading Byzantine history, one has to pay very close attention.

So far my only complaints about Lord Norwich's history are: firstly, his contempt for Xnty is barely disguised — although he is, for some reason, more laudatory of Islam — and secondly, he simply makes no serious effort to help his reader fully understand the reasons behind some of the religious controversies in the eastern church, controversies which were so important in Byzantine history. Like a good Modernist, he simply throws up his hands and says it's all quite "impossible" to understand. Furthermore, there were a couple of spots where I thought he was getting things simply flat-out wrong. For example, he mistakenly labeled the Paulicians a Xtian sect, when in fact they were just another recrudescence of Gnosticism, an altogether different thing, which back in the Middle Ages would pop up in various times and places, decked out in different styles and flavors. Gnosticism is still around even today and has never really gone away — just check around the local big-chain bookstores to see what I mean. Academe and writers of cheesy novels especially love Gnosticism. However, understanding the distinction between Gnosticism and Xnty was just too subtle for Lord Norwich apparently. But other than that, I found his Byzantium to be well written and very engrossing.

[addendum] I finished the second volume, but I am going to take a short break before tackling Lord Norwich's third book in the series, "The Decline and Fall". One can overdose on this stuff. I do have something to say to those in the Catholic and Orthodox churches who still are hankering for a return to the old Constantinian amalgamation of church and state: sorry, but no, thank you. Byzantium was where that old arrangement existed in spades, and besides corrupting the church, it never really worked right.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Unnerving Hobo

On Friday night I finally watched "Polar Express". The idea of a magical train was interesting, and the movie was very dream-like in places. In fact, some parts bore a resemblance to some of my dreams, especially the urban landscape of Santa's North Pole metropolis. The Hobo on the carriage roof was unnerving in a Stephen Kingish sort of way, but apparently he was not malevolent as he rescues the main character at various points in the story. However, Santa's Elves at the North Pole seemed downright creepy to me, more like midget, shopping-mall versions of Nosferatu. The Conductor's final admonition, which ran something like "it doesn't matter where the train is going just as long you get on", was just about the most stupid advice ever given out in a Hollywood production.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Relentlessly Depressing

I very recently finished reading Mark Steyn's book "America Alone, The End of the World as We Know It".

It was the most relentlessly depressing book I've read in a long time. But Steyn writes with such wit and sardonic humor, even with dealing with gloomy topics, that it was a very enjoyable book to read. I highly recommend it. Demand it from your local library so that others can enjoy it as well, or else be sure to pick it up at your favorite bookseller. Share it with others when you're done.

Oh, by the way, if you like European vacations — visiting famous museums, seeing great art, admiring gothic cathedrals, pilgrimaging to famous shrines, dining at fabulous cafes and restaurants, seeing the beautiful sights, etc., all in comparative safety — well, you had better boogie and get your kicks in now while there is anything left that can recognizably be called Europe, because soon all of it will be gone. Totally. Utterly. Gone. It'll be history just like Nineveh and Babylon are history. It'll be gone just like the Hittite civilization is gone.

Gone, as in Ozymandias gone:
… Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
And Russia, poor drunken-in-an-oil-funded-stupor Russia, is literally aborting itself right out of existence. If there ever was a "Holy Mother Russia", it had better learn once again to be a mother and had better get some holiness, and right quickly, if there's going to be any Russia left at all. For starters, if you ask me, they need to kick out of office that materialistic, one-dimensional-minded, KGB apparatchik goon they have for a president. It might help.

Be sure to read Steyn's book to understand better what I mean.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Elkins Resort

Yesterday, we got back from a short vacation at Elkins Resort. It's a nice place, located on the western shore of Priest Lake at Reeder Bay, a little east of Nordman. We had nothing particularly fancy, just a plain one bedroom cabin. Off in the distance, we could see the ridge of the Selkirk Mountains, jutting up into the sky east of us.

Priest Lake drains at its south end through the Priest River, which connects with the Pend Oreille which flows northward to Canada. Unfortunately, there were some fires going, out beyond the northern tip of the lake, which had the effect of making the air very hazy, giving the Selkirk Mountains a rather abstract look.

The entire area around Priest Lake is "so Idaho", quite mountainous or hilly, heavily forested, but punctuated with a meadow or marsh here and there. Now if you are a lover of the hustle bustle of city life, do avoid the area because you'll find little that is interesting there, unless looking at every variety of conifer under the sun constitutes excitement for you. And if you like sightseeing and visiting lots of curious tourist traps, along with extravagant restaurants, well, the Priest Lake really doesn't have any of that.

In fact, the Priest Lake area is rather sparsely populated, even by Idaho standards. If soul-searing isolation is something you love, well, I recommend Priest Lake. There's only one road in and out, state highway 57. If you have a heart attack, count yourself dead because it's a long way to the nearest fully equipped hospital.

Elkins Resort was nothing terribly fancy. It had a marina, along with boat slips that looked a hundred years old, and some nice narrow beaches. You can rent boats, canoes, and bicycles. And it did have an excellent dining room, although a little on the expensive side. The "huckleberry whiskey barbeque chicken" was very tasty. But my recommendation is to bring most of your own food and drink. Many of the cabins are equipped with a stove, refrigerator, and microwave. But there are simply not that many nice restaurants in the area. Most of the boat marinas, here and there around the lake, however do have cafes, of varying quality. But remember it's Land-In-Between; expect things to be rough.

Addendum: A little east of the Selkirk Mountains is a specially protected area set aside as habitat for the mountain caribou. Consequently, it is off limits from many recreational uses. According to one of the locals, however, the mountain caribou no longer actually live there; and over the last ten years only two had ever been spotted. "Were they all dead?" I asked. "No, they just migrated up to Canada," was the explanation. Well, I guess they threatened to move to Canada if George Bush got elected, which explains it.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Worst Ever Made

The movie I was trying to think of was entitled "The Pride and The Passion", released back in 1957, which was almost half a century ago, a fact which makes me feel really old. Although they didn't exactly present some of their best performances, Cary Grant, Sophia Loren, and Frank Sinatra starred in the movie, along with a cast of thousands. Of course, Sophia Loren was cast as the stereotypical fiery "Latin woman", who in one scene couldn't feign dancing a flamenco convincingly enough if only to save her own life — at least according to one reviewer I glanced over. Another reviewer I read classified it as one of the worst movies Hollywood has ever made. None of the synopses I came across mention anything about the statue of Santa Teresa showing up at the end of the movie, but I am very sure that I recollect that happening. In any case, Ávila was definitely the city that got bombarded by the really big cannon.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Transverberation

Book Review

Title: Teresa of Ávila
Author: Shirley du Boulay

I just finished reading Shirley du Boulay's book "Teresa of Ávila—An Extraordinary Life". I had previously read St. Teresa's own autobiography, but Boulay's biography covers her entire life and fills in several details that I did not know about. For example, Teresa did a good deal of traveling all over Spain, and considering just how difficult traveling was in the 16th Century, her journeys were often feats of endurance. Boulay's book was very well written and quite vivid, and it kept its attention squarely fixed on the person within the context wherein she live, and best of all, it refrained from trying to conscript St. Teresa into serving some sort of 21st Century political purpose.

St. Teresa of Ávila, who canonized in 1622 and was later declared the "patroness of Spain" in 1812, had a very active and extraordinary life, to say the least. And, in many ways, her life was very far-removed from my own: I'm a 21st Century "charismatic" (for lack of a better term), and she was a 16th Century Spanish Catholic "mystic" and foundress of numerous Discalced Carmelite convents. That's a pretty wide gap in fact, but nevertheless, for some strange reason, I found her life fascinating, and although she had some rather beyond-this-world experiences — and I'm one of those persons who doesn't have too much trouble accepting the possibility of beyond-this-world experiences — Teresa always seemed very lively, witty, humorous, practical, and down to earth in many ways.

However, the thing that was shocking to me was how veneration of relics got a little out of hand especially with regard to Teresa after she died in October of 1582. Over the course of time, her body, to put it crudely, was pretty much carved up and spread all over the landscape, with pieces here and pieces there, even if it was done with the best of intentions. As regards to the resurrection of the dead, well, even so, it presents no difficulties. In any case, I imagine that the Catholic Church is nowadays a little more strict about how these matters are conducted. By the way, I remember finding the website of an organization dedicated to stopping the illicit trade in relics.

I do recommend Boulay's biography. I picked it up at Borders Books just recently.

Addendum: Of course, everyone is familiar with Bernini's erotically overwrought depiction of Teresa's "transverberation". And it's funny but I also vaguely remember seeing long ago a movie about some Spaniards stealthily hauling a really big cannon to go blow some holes in the walls of a city occupied by soldiers of Napoleon. They were doing it for Santa Teresa, if I remember it rightly. Or at least they were invoking her help in driving Napoleon out of Spain. I'm not completely sure which, but I'm pretty sure St. Teresa was somewhere in the movie. But it was helpful for the Spaniards to have the cannon, and the French general had a rather surprised expression on his face when he saw it.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Dull Boy of Baltimore

A Book Review
Title: Mencken — The American Iconclast
Subtitle: The Life and Times of the Bad Boy of Baltimore
Author: Elizabeth Roger

Mencken was a wag and influential newspaperman who admired Nietzsche, imbibed Huxley, and despised Bible-believing xtians, especially evangelicals and "holy rollers" (such as myself, though I really don't do that much rolling). Though despising them, yet for some strange reason, he was also fascinated by them. Also, he smoked cigars and was something of a roué who wasn't above callously jilting someone.

Just those two things tell me a lot. In many ways, Mencken was a thoroughly modern man. I recall many years ago a high school teacher telling me that she thought my writing style, at the time, reminded her of Mencken's. She gave me a book having some of his selected essays, which I read. I remember finding him humorous and witty, scornfully so, but only mildly interesting. His writing also seemed insubstantial and not really going anywhere — like someone obsessively talking about an itch he has and doing so with a perpetual sneer on his face. I never read much of him after that.

But he was a notable character back in early 20th Century America, and so I'd thought I might read up on him a little bit. He was a contemporary of Aimee Semple McPherson, although the book doesn't say very much about what Mencken might have said or thought about her specifically, although I heard that he came to her defense when she was being prosecuted by the district attorney regarding the famous "kidnapping" episode.

Anyhow, I have Marion Elizabeth Roger's recent biography of his life. On the front cover is a flash photo of him quaffing a beer. I guess he was celebrating something. The End of Prohibition perhaps? Roger's biography was pretty well written, though in places I suspect she "imaginatively" supplies some interpolative details to grease the gears of her narration.

After getting one-third the way through the 553 pages of Roger's book, I decided to call it quits. It wasn't because her biography was anything less than comprehensive and well written. If someone is a Mencken fan, then I would definitely recommend her biography of his life. But honestly speaking, I just didn't find H.L. Mencken all that interesting a person to read about. Yes, indeed, in his day he was a influential journalist with a smart-aleck attitude, sometimes witty and humorous. But also combined with it was an ineradicable arrogance and an inelastic conviction of his own intellectual superiority to the mass of his fellow men. I guess he got that from imbibing too much Nietzsche and Social Darwinism. Occasionally, he was given over to visceral antipathies. It seemed to me his hatred of William Jennings Bryan was pretty close to being downright pathological. I guess it would be comparable to the "Bush Derangement Syndrome" often found among the loonier portions of today's Left.

But his antipathies weren't just limited to Bryan. After reading instance after instance where he is calling someone or another a "mountebank", or denouncing this and that, even if in differing and clever ways, still, it all gets to be rather threadbare after awhile. Invective, even if combined with a clever turn of phrase or bon mot, can get very tiresome. More than anything else, I found him a boring subject and what he had to say so much wind. Plowing through all 553 pages of Roger's biography just didn't seem worth the effort.